The 117th Infantry
The Third Tennessee Infantry, as the 117th Infantry was known in state service, was a veteran organization when President Wilson called the national guard into federal service as a part of the great army that was to fight Germany. The regiment had spent nine months on the Mexican border, patrolling our southern boundary to prevent trouble with our neighbors. The regiment left Knoxville June 16, 1916, and did not return home until March 20, 1917, to be mustered out. A few weeks later, following the declaration of war, the Third Tennessee was again sworn into state service and ten days later into the service of the federal government.
An active recruiting campaign was conducted to raise the companies to full strength. At the same time, infantry foot drill and physical exercises were given daily to put the men in good physical trim and training. Recruiting and drilling were carried on simultaneously until the regiment assembled at Knoxville and departed for Camp Sevier, S. C., early in September, 1917. There, in the organization of the Thirtieth Division, it was designated the 117th Infantry of the 59th Brigade.
The personnel of the officers of the regiment, together with the localities from which the companies were recruited, was as follows: Colonel Cary F. Spence, commanding, Knoxville; Lieutenant-Colonel Charles F. Brown, Chattanooga; Headquarters Company, of Knoxville, Captain Thomas J. Wyrick; Supply Company, of Knoxville, Captain Roscoe A. D. Stanis, 2nd Lieut. John A. Skelton; Machine Gun Company, of Knoxville, Captain Robert A. McMillan, 1st Lieut. James N. Condon, 2nd Lieut. James C. Compton, 2nd Lieut. Neal A. Reynolds.
First Battalion -- Major Charles W. Dyer, Knoxville; 1st Lieut. Oscar J. B. Whitehurst; Company A, of Knoxville, Captain Ernest W. Andes, 1st Lieut. Fred W. Fritts, 2nd Lieut. George P. Howard; Company B, of Maryville and Knoxville, Captain Emerson J. Lones, 1st Lieut. Wiley W. Boring, 2nd Lieut. Robert M. Lindsay; Company C, of Knoxville, Captain George A. Blair, 1st Lieut. Lynn Z. Morris, 2nd Lieut. George W. McMillan; Company D, of Knoxville, Captain Harry W. Curtis, Jr., 1st Lieut. Belmont Earle, 2nd Lieut. John Walker Leach.
Second Battalion -- Major Caleb R. Hathaway, 1st Lieut. Robert W. Swatts; Company E, of Hampton, Captain Philip I. Brummit, 1st Lieut. Fred Baker, 2nd Lieut. Charles Mitchell; Company F, of Johnson City, Captain George H. Scott, 1st Lieut. Robey Williams, 2nd Lieut. Richard K. Gibson, Jr. ; Company G, of Elizabethton, Captain E. C. Cass, 1st Lieut. Byrn H. Folsom, 2nd Lieut. Van Dyke Ochs; Company H, of Bristol, Captain W. A. Buckles, 1st Lieut. George Burrow, 2nd Lieut. Joseph Morton.
Third Battalion -- Major Dan M. Ellis, 1st Lieut. Ernest Brown; Company I, of Athens, Captain Nathaniel Callen, 1st Lieut. Glenn Cauthron, 2nd Lieut. Rolfe Moody; Company K, of Chattanooga, Captain Ernest Bell, 1st Lieut. Harry L. Clark, 2nd Lieut. Amiel W. Brinkley; Company L, of Etowah, Captain David W. Lillard, 1st Lieut. Charles D. Walters, 2nd Lieut. William C. Boyd; Company M, of Tellico Plains, Captain Burley J. Pennington, 1st Lieut. Levi J. Moorehouse, 2nd Lieut. N. E. Ellis.
On leaving Knoxville the regiment had over 2,000 men. During the early fall of 1917, its strength was increased by the addition of 1676 drafted men at Camp Sevier. They came from Camp Gordon and were principally from Tennessee. However, about 350 men, picked from the entire regiment and chosen for special technical qualifications, were transferred from the 117th during the period of training at Camp Sevier and were ordered to special branches of the army in which their technical ability was needed. Their loss was more than taken care of by a quota of 500 draft men from the Middle West, who made a splendid addition to the regiment. Taking a general average of the service of the 117th, its enlisted personnel was about half draft and half volunteer. No difference or distinction was made between them, they worked into a homogeneous whole, and the honors won on the battlefield were divided about half and half between them.
The first part of the work at Camp Sevier was clearing a camp from a pine forest. All military drill was impossible until the large pine trees and undergrowth had been removed and the holes leveled. This hard physical work proved excellent for the men, as they hardened into fine condition and most of them gained in weight. After fair grounds had been prepared, a strenuous daily schedule of infantry drill was carried out, discipline stiffened, and during the winter and spring of 1918, instruction was given by English officers and noncommissioned officers in trench warfare. During the winter, which was a very severe one, one officer and twenty-nine enlisted men died from disease, principally pneumonia. During the eight months at Camp Sevier, all kinds of schools for officers and non-commissioned officers were held. Many of the officers went to other camps for training in special branches. Col. Spence and Lieut.-Col. Brown went to Fort Sam Houston for a course of several weeks for field officers.
Orders were received May 2, 1918, to entrain for duty overseas, and on the night of May 10, 1918, the regiment went on board transports at New York. Some ten days later, after an attack by submarines off the Irish Coast, in which the convoy escaped without loss, landing was made at Liverpool, England, where special trains carried the regiment straight through London to Folkestone. Transports ferried it across the English Channel by night to Calais, France. American equipment was turned in there and British was issued in its stead. The Thirtieth Division was one of seven American divisions which were concentrated in the British area for training and for use in case the Germans made their threatened drive for the Channel ports. The enemy was said to have 20 divisions at this time just back of Ypres, ready to make this attack, but their withdrawal was made necessary later by the allied resistance on other parts of the front.
[Photo at right - "The Cathedral at Ypres: All that remained of this religious treasure, after Germans had shelled it for four years."] The 117th proceeded from Calais to Norbecourt, where, under British officers and non-commissioned officers, the officers and men of the regiment were trained strenuously for five weeks. Detachments went up from time to time to the Canal Sector, between Ypres and Mont Kemmel, for front line work. This was most important, for it gave the regiment some experience in actual warfare before it was ordered later to take over a part of the line. About July 1 the Thirtieth Division was ordered to move into Belgium. The 59th Brigade, which crossed the border on July 4, was the first unit of American forces to enter the war-torn little country, which bore the first assault of the German attack in the world war.
The 117th was assigned to Tunneling Camp, where it was given its final training in trench warfare and in attacking strong points. After a few days of this work, the regiment was ordered into the battle line. One battalion held the front line trenches, another was kept in support, while the third was held in reserve on the East Popperinghe Line. The battalions alternated in these positions for twenty-four days, each receiving the same amount of real front line work. On August 17, when it became evident that the Americans were fully able to handle the situation, the sector was turned over to the Thirtieth Division by the Thirty-third British Division, which had been stationed in the line there. The extent of the sector was from the southern outskirts of Ypres to Voormezeele and was known as the Canal Sector.
With the exception of a limited offensive, conducted in cooperation with the British, in which Mont Kemmel was outflanked, Voormezeele captured, and an advance of about 1500 yards made, the Thirtieth Division was purely on the defensive in all the fighting in Belgium. Yet this type of warfare was, perhaps, the most harassing through which it went during the whole war. The Germans knew the location of every trench, and their artillery played upon them day and night. Night bombers also made this a very uncomfortable sector, for they dropped tons of explosives both upon the front and at the rear. There was little concealment on either side, because this part of Belgium was very flat. Artificial camouflage provided what little deception was practiced upon the enemy. The casualties of the 117th in the two months in which it was stationed in the Canal Sector were not heavy. Only a few men were killed, and the number of wounded was less than 100. King George of England and Field Marshal Haig, commander of the English armies, honored the regiment with a visit and made an inspection of its companies.
On the night of September 4, the 117th, together with the other units of the division, was withdrawn from the English Second Army and placed in British G. H. Q. reserve. The next two weeks were given to intensive training with tanks, with a view to coming offensive operations with them. September 1 trucks and busses were provided and the regiment moved through Albert, Bray, and Peronne to near Tincourt, just back of the celebrated Hindenburg Line. The Thirtieth and Twenty-seventh Divisions, which were the only American division left with the British, were assigned now to the British Fourth Army, General Rawlinson commanding, for the great attack which was soon to be launched at this most vital and highly fortified part of the whole line. They were fresh, they had shown their mettle in the defensive operations in Belgium, and so they were chosen for the spearhead of the attack.
The 59th Brigade went into the line first, relieving the Australians on the night of September 26. The 118th Infantry took over the front line, with the 117th Infantry in close support. The casualties of the latter were rather heavy from gas shells in making the relief, one company losing 62 men to the hospital.
The celebrated Hindenburg Line, which the German commander-in-chief, General von Hindenburg, built as a great defensive system to hold against capture of France and Belgium east of it, extended from the English Channel to the Swiss border. It was not a local defensive system at all. Yet at various parts of the line there were key positions, dominating a large area, the fortifications of which had been made much stronger. The area between St. Quentin and Cambrai held the key to the German defenses on the northern end of the line. It was fortified accordingly with all the ingenuity and deviltry of the Hun mind.
[Photo at right - "View of Bellicourt: In lower left hand corner is entrance to the formidable Hindenburg Tunnel."] In front of Bellicourt, near the center of the American sector of attack, the Hindenburg Line, which curved west of the St. Quentin Canal, consisted of three main trench systems, each protected by row after row of barbed wire entanglements. These trench systems were on high ground and gave the Germans the advantage of being able to sweep the whole area in front of them with machine guns. Along the canal were concrete machine gun emplacements. Back of this formidable system of defenses was the canal tunnel, built by Napoleon in 1802-10 and running underground for a distance of three miles. From this tunnel there were thirty-eight exits, each carefully camouflaged. The tunnel was lighted by electricity, a narrow gauge railroad brought in supplies from the outside, while canal boats provided quarters for a large number of men. Thus there was complete shelter for a large garrison of the enemy against heavy shelling, and in case of a real attack, an almost impregnable defense.
The attack upon this part of the line was set for the morning of September 29, 1918. The 27th American Division was on the left, the 46th British on the right of the 30th American Division. The American sector passed across the tunnel, but the British on the right and left were prepared to swim the canal in case no bridges were found to afford them passage. The assault of the infantry upon these fortifications was to be preceded by a bombardment of 72 hours -- with gas shells for 24 hours and with shell and shrapnel from light and heavy artillery for 48 hours.
In the Thirtieth Division sector, the 119th and 120th Infantry were assigned to make the opening attack, with the 117th Infantry following in close support, and prepared to exploit their advance after the canal had been crossed. The 118th Infantry was held in reserve. The 119th Infantry had the left half of the sector, while the 120th, strengthened by Company H, of the 117th, covered the right half. In addition to his regimental strength, Colonel Spence, of the 117th, had under his command for the attack 92 guns of Australian artillery, 24 British tanks, and two extra machine gun companies. The plan of battle was that the regiment, following the 120th, should cross the canal between Bellicourt on the left and the entrance to the canal on the right, then turn at right angles, and proceed southeasterly down the main Hindenburg Line trench, mopping up this territory of the enemy for about a mile. Connection was to be made with the British on the right, if they succeeded in crossing the canal.
The facts of the case are that this paper plan of battle worked out somewhat differently under battle conditions. Most of the assaulting companies became badly confused in the deep fog and smoke, strayed off somewhat from their objectives, and their attack swung to the left of the sector. The 117th, which followed, went off in the opposite direction fortunately and cleaned out a territory which otherwise would have been left undisturbed. While it caused endless confusion and the temporary intermingling of platoons, companies, and even regiments, this pall of mist and smoke on the morning of the attack undoubtedly contributed to the success of the battle. The Germans did not know how to shoot accurately, for no targets were visible. During the morning hours it was impossible for a man to see his hand more than a few inches in front of him. Men in the combat groups joined hands to avoid being lost from each other. Officers were compelled, in orienting their maps, to lay them on the ground, as it was impossible to read them while standing in the dense cloud of smoke and mist. The atmosphere did not clear up completely until after the canal had been crossed.
The barrage for the attack went down at 5:50 a.m. The First Battalion, under Major Dyer, jumped off promptly on time, with C and D Companies in the line, A and B Companies in support. The Second Battalion followed at about 500 yards, while the Third Battalion, with a company of engineers, was held in reserve on the crest of a hill. The tanks, for the most part, became separated from the infantry, but their work was invaluable in plowing through the barbed wire, which had been cut up very little by the barrage. Like nearly everyone else, the tanks lost sense of direction in the smoke and fog cloud, while the majority of them were disabled before noon of the 29th.
[Photo at left - "Immortal Bellicourt: Oblique air photograph of famous village where 30th Division broke Hindenburg Line September 29, 1918. Note trench and barbed wire systems near town."] Most of the morning was consumed by the 117th in clearing out the area south and west of the tunnel entrance. Some units, mistaking one of the trench systems for the canal, turned southward before actually reaching the genuine canal. They cleaned out thoroughly the Germans, who were in this pocket, shown on the accompanying map, but toward 10 o'clock turned northward and began to pass over the tunnel, the left flank skimming Bellicourt and the right crossing near the tunnel entrance. It then turned southward and mopped up the area assigned it. The Third Battalion, in the meanwhile, had been called from reserve and joined with the 119th Infantry in the attack northeast of Bellicourt. The First and Second Battalions reached their objectives after vigorous fighting, consolidated the positions they had won, and reorganized their companies, which had been badly scattered and mixed by the morning fog. At 8 p.m. the regiment was ordered to lie in support of the Australians, who had passed over earlier in the evening and gone forward to pursue the attack.
The casualties of the 117th on September 29 were 26 officers and 366 men. Seven field pieces, 99 machine guns, 7 anti-tank rifles, many small arms and 592 German prisoners were the trophies of the day. Though the casualties were rather heavy, in view of the machine gun and artillery resistance which the Germans offered from powerfully held positions, they should be regarded as rather light. With a clear day, without fog or smoke, they would have been double or treble this number.
The 117th was relieved from the line about noon of October 1, and before night the regiment was on its way back to the Herbicourt area on the Somme River for rest and reorganization. This period, however, was very brief, for on October 5 orders were issued to relieve an Australian brigade. On returning the Third Battalion was assigned to the line, the Second was placed in support, while the First was made the brigade reserve. The Third Battalion had many losses in relieving the Australians, for the night was very dark, getting into position difficult, and the enemy very active with his artillery and machine guns.
The offensive of the division, with the 59th Brigade making the attack, was scheduled for the morning of October 8. In preparation for it, it was thought necessary to straighten a salient of about 500 yards in depth in front of the 117th sector. Consequently, the Third Battalion, which was in the line, attacked on the morning of October 7. The order of battle was Company I on the left, Company L in the center, Company M on the right, with Company K in support and Company F, of the Second Battalion, in reserve. The attack started before six o'clock in the morning, after a heavy barrage had been laid down by the accompanying artillery. In spite of heavy shelling by German machine guns and artillery on both flanks, especially from the towns of Ponchaux and Geneve, the companies made fairly good gains during the day, fighting almost every foot of the way. This operation was a very costly one, perhaps the most bloody of the whole division in proportion to the number of men engaged, for out of the battalion, 12 officers and about 400 men were either killed or wounded.
The 59th Brigade offensive was launched the following morning, October 8, the 117th on the left, the 118th on the right. The British were on the flanks. The jumping off line was northeast of Wiancourt, while the objective was slightly beyond Premont. The First Battalion of the 117th launched the attack for the regiment, the Second Battalion was in close support, while the Third Battalion, which had been cut up badly the day before, was in reserve. The attack got off on time in spite of the difficulties that were encountered the previous night in getting into position under fire and in the dark.
In the face of furious German resistance with all kinds of machine gun nests and an abundance of light artillery, the battalions advanced very rapidly, skillfully knocking out machine guns and maneuvering to the best advantage over the broken ground. The Second Battalion suffered heavy losses during the morning and two companies of the brigade reserve were ordered to its support. Before noon Major Hathaway, who commanded it, announced the capture of Premont and his arrival at the prescribed objective. Positions were consolidated during the afternoon and preparations made for a possible counter-attack. The casualties of the 117th on October 8 were the heaviest of any day of fighting in which it was engaged on the front. The toll of officers and non-commissioned officers was especially distressing, as it cut down the number of leaders in the coming battles.
During the night, when all were expecting word of relief after such a strenuous day in which everyone had spent himself to the utmost, orders were received that the brigade would continue the fight at daybreak the next morning. The sector was moved to the right, however, and the front of attack shortened. The drive started before six o'clock in the morning, after the usual barrage had been laid down by the artillery. In spite of the fact that this shift was made at night, that the two battalions had to reorganize and gather their men from the attack the day previous, and that the Germans kept up their bombardment by artillery and aeroplanes, all the companies were on the tape and the attack was launched on the minute.
The resistance slackened during the day, and with the exception of a short check at a railroad embankment, the advance was steady toward the objective. The First and Second Battalions fought side by side, the Third Battalion was held in reserve and to further recuperate. There was a big decrease in the intensity of the hostile artillery fire during the day and the losses were light compared to the day before. Busigny was captured and all objectives reached early in the afternoon. The 119th Infantry, of the 60th Brigade, passed over the regiment during the late afternoon and continued the attack.
During these three days of fighting, October 7, 8, and 9, the regiment lost 34 officers and 1051 men as casualties. A count of the spoils taken included 113 machine guns, 28 field pieces, 907 small arms and about 800 prisoners. The great majority of the latter, 703, were captured on October 8, showing that on the final day the men, enraged by the losses of their comrades the day previous, killed most of the Germans they took. This became not an uncommon practice in the latter days of fighting, especially against the German machine gunners, who would kill or wound from their place of concealment a half platoon or more of men before their gun was located and put out of action. This custom of taking no prisoners was confined to no regiment, but became common practice throughout the division.
The next few days were given the 117th to rest and recuperate, a course it sorely needed after the exhaustion and losses of the last three days of its fighting. On the morning of October 16, however, it was called back into the line to relieve the 27th American Division. The First Battalion, less Company C, which was relieved just before the battle on account of ptomaine poisoning, jumped off in a new attack the following morning, October 17. The Second Battalion, which followed it, caught the brunt of the enemy fire. Major Hathaway was wounded early in the morning, and Captain Ware, the remaining captain of the battalion, was sent back a short time later with a serious wound. Lieut. Baker, as senior officer, took command and led it the rest of the day, while non-commissioned officers commanded two companies because there were no officers left. Molaine was captured by the regiment, an advance of more than a mile across the Selle River was made, but heavy machine gun fire held up the advance on Ribeauville, which was protected by a railroad embankment. The British had been checked on the right and so it was thought inadvisable to push the capture of the town immediately by a frontal attack, when it might be taken later from the flank.
The regiment was relieved on the night of October 17, with the exception of the Third Battalion, which was assigned to the support of the 60th Brigade during the attack the following day. The 117th remained in this area until October 20, when the whole division started back to the rear for rest, reorganization and a new supply of officers and men to bring it up again to war strength. The area a designated was near Amiens. Expectation was that the whole division would be ordered back into the line about November 15, but the signing of the armistice put an end to any return to the battle front.
After receiving some fresh replacements, the 117th entrained for the Le Mans area on November 22, arriving there two days later and remaining until March 10, 1919. An intensive schedule of drill, maneuvers, and parades was carried out, even during the winter months. General Pershing visited the division and reviewed it during its stay here. In February, the regiment moved into the forwarding camp at Le Mans, went through the delousing plant and was furnished some personal equipment for the men. This month was one of severe trial, for fuel was very short, the weather was cold and rainy, and an epidemic of influenza ran through the camp. Some of the men, who had endured the hardships of battle, succumbed to the disease on the eve of returning home. On March 10 the trains arrived to transport the regiment to St. Nazaire, from which its boat sailed on March 16. The transport arrived in Charleston harbor the latter days of the month, and the men were entrained at once for Columbia, where they were given their final delousing and furnished some new clothing.
The triumphal return began the first week of April, 1919, Knoxville being the first stop. A reception, in which it seemed that all East Tennessee joined and to which the city turned out en masse, was tendered the officers and men in the one day of their stay. The crowd was historic in size and in enthusiasm. A parade through the principal business streets, which were jammed with cheering thousands, and a banquet to every man in uniform were the principal features of the day. The regiment then went to Nashville where it received a similar welcome. Chattanooga was the last city in which a parade was given. A splendid welcome was given the men and officers there. The regiment was mustered out of service at Fort Oglethorpe, nearby, during the middle of April.
A resume of the regiment's laurels, as well as its losses between July 4, when it came under shell fire, and November 11, the date of the armistice, shows the following interesting figures: Prisoners captured, 1758; machine guns 268; field pieces 44; small arms, about 3000; anti-tank rifles 12. Total casualties of officers and men were 1818, of which 81 were officers and 1737 were non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. Total deaths of officers and men were 366. The regiment's total advance into hostile territory was 11-2/3 miles and the towns captured by it were Premont, Busigny and Molaine.
No finer testimony to the bravery of both officers and men can be found than in the number of medals and decorations with which they were honored. Three men won the coveted Congressional Medal of Honor, while 126 other men and officers were awarded the American Distinguished Service Cross, the British Distinguished Service Order, the British Military Cross, the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal. While statistics are not available now, it is doubtful whether any regiment in our army surpassed this record in the same period of time.
Major-General Lewis, commanding general of the Thirtieth Division, decorated the colors of the regiment for participation in the following engagements:
He also cited the regiment in divisional orders for its distinguished conduct in battle. Colonel Cary F. Spence, its commanding officer, was cited by General Pershing for his distinguished leadership in action. The regiment also shared equally in the ten citations conferred upon the whole Thirtieth Division by the English and Australian High Command.
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