June 25, 2019
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Mainers first tasted the horrors of France’s Western Front 100 years ago

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

There’s a beautiful ridgeline in northern France called the Chemin des Dames. Literally translated, it means “the road of the ladies,” named after the daughters of a French monarch who once traveled across it. By 1918, the ridgeline was the scene of some of the most brutal warfare on the Western Front. The French and Germans had smashed their armies against each other for control of this ground until it resembled a moonscape: blasted trees, scorched earth and towns turned to rubble.

It was to this landscape that the Maine National Guard’s 103rd Infantry Regiment arrived on Feb. 2, 1918. Labeled a “quiet front” by French planners, it was thought this would be a good place for the newly arrived Americans to get practical experience before moving into real combat. After disembarking from their trains, the soldiers marched toward the front lines. Pvt. Howard P. Crosby from Fairfield wrote of his experiences traveling to the front with the 103rd’s Machine Gun Company: “Everywhere was ruins and desolation. You may rest assured that these sights made a profound and lasting impression upon us who were experiencing such scenes for the first time.”

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The companies of the regiment were interspersed between French units and were scattered across a wide sector, with some on the front line, some in support and some in reserve. The front lines consisted of outposts along a canal, where excited Americans exchanged fire with German veterans across the way. The Americans were prone to fire at anything, as Lt. Frank Burbank from Livermore Falls noted in his combat log: “Snowy and Rainy. Very nasty … Ammunition expended; 11 grenades, two were thrown from P.P. [petites postes] 14 at what turned out to be a wild duck. Missed the duck so no roast duck today.” Airplanes soared overhead, causing many a rookie soldier from Maine to run out of their dugouts to see the uncommon sight.

Troops in the support position lived in enormous underground caverns — old quarries hewn out over centuries that offered ready-made living quarters out of sight from the Germans. The caverns were equipped with electricity and supplied by means of narrow gauge railroad. “This is some place we are staying in now,” Pvt. Ralph Spaulding from Madison wrote Feb. 11, two days after entering the quarry. “The other night I woke up and the fellow that sleeps near me was having a fight with the rats. There is all kind of rats here.” To pass the time, soldiers carved their names, units or hometown information on the walls where they can still be seen today.

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Although this was labeled a “quiet front,” it was far from it. The regiment was subjected to regular shelling from German guns across the canal. “I shall never forget the peculiar feeling in my stomach when I heard the first heavy shell whistling over my head,” Ralph Moan from East Machias wrote. A flurry of high-explosive shells would send troops scattering to find shelter. It was one of these dreaded bombardments, on Feb. 13, that caused the first casualty in the 103rd Infantry. Pvt. Ralph Spaulding with Waterville’s Company H was killed by an exploding shell while digging trenches. Two days before, Spaulding had written home to tell his parents not to worry and that he didn’t think the war would last much longer. On hearing the news, one Maine newspaper wrote, “The mailed fist of the Kaiser has been felt by Company H of Waterville.”

Five days later, Pvt. Henry Sweeney from Manchester, New Hampshire, was killed in action. Then on Feb. 24, Milo’s Sgt. Joseph Chaisson was shot through the throat while firing rifle grenades across the canal and died shortly after. He was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre (Cross of War), the first of the regiment to receive it.

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The officers were not immune, either. First Lt. Harold Eadie of Tilton, New Hampshire, had left Dartmouth to go to war and was holding a position in Norway, Maine’s Company D on Feb. 28. “Fritz started to shell our front that night,” Capt. James Hanson remarked, “Eadie was hit almost the first thing. Piece of shrapnel through the left lung.” He died the next day.

Through artillery shells, gas attacks, machine gun fire and sniping, the men from Maine and New Hampshire learned how to survive on the Western Front. They developed close friendships with the French units they worked with and forged an unbreakable bond between each other. The 103rd Infantry came off the front lines on March 19. It was only the beginning of their wartime service. Spring would see them thrown into the heart of trench warfare.

Capt. Jonathan Bratten is the Maine National Guard historian.

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