By TOM CARPENTER
Special to the OBSERVER
"Will go over the top in 10 minutes," my grandfather, Pvt. Albert Carpenter, wrote in his World War I war diary 93 years ago. It was Oct. 8, 1918, and he was preparing for his first day of battle. At the moment of that diary entry, my other grandfather, Sgt. Ernest Gay, was 4,000 yards away facing his fifth day of murderous German artillery, machine gun fire and counterattacks on top of Blanc Mont Ridge.
Since my childhood, I have known that both of my grandfathers fought in the First World War and that my Grandfather Carpenter's regiment relieved my Grandfather Gay's regiment on some battlefield in France - but that's all I ever knew. I was too young to talk to my dad's dad about the war (he died in 1971) and my mom's father would never talk about it with me. But then again, he wouldn't talk to anyone else about it either.
Now that I know the date, Oct. 8, 1918, the battle, Blanc Mont Ridge, and the circumstances of that awful day (and week) for both of my grandfathers, I am filled with a humbling realization that any day-to-day challenges I may face are microscopic in comparison.
It was a work of WWI-era historical fiction I read eight months ago that tweaked my curiosity about my grandfathers and WWI. After months of research, I now have a much better understanding of what happened 93 years ago this week.
ENLISTING IN THE ARMY
Most people remember that the First World War lasted from 1914 to 1918, but many have forgotten that U.S. forces only fought during the last nine months of the "War to End all Wars."
After war was declared against the German Empire in April 1917, war fever swept America and men like my two grandfathers enlisted quickly. According to my mother, Emily Gay Carpenter (herself a retired Army Captain and Korean War veteran), my grandfather had no say concerning whether he would enlist or not. My great-grandfather Gay told my grandfather Gay and his older brother (Clayton Gay) that he was not going to be "seen walking the streets of Jonesboro [Maine] if his two able-bodied boys were not in the military." To that end, my Grandfather Gay enlisted in the Army and my great uncle Clayton joined the Navy.
Meanwhile, half-way across the country, my then-19-year-old Grandfather Carpenter enlisted in the 142nd Infantry with men from the Texas-Oklahoma National Guard.
HORRORS OF WAR
Common sense dictates that if you've never faced hostile fire in combat then you can never understand the feelings of those who have endured such horrors.
My mother tells a story from her childhood when she and her father discovered a drowned hurricane victim. After making certain that the man was dead, my grandfather vomited. When he was done he looked at my mother and said: "You never forget that smell." Even at 10 years old my mother knew that he was talking about the war.
His visceral reaction spoke volumes about his experiences in France. In retrospect (and especially after learning about the battles my Grandfather Gay survived), I respect more than ever his reticence to discuss the war - particularly places like Blanc Mont Ridge.
Blanc "Mont" Ridge is not a "mountain" at all. In fact, it's little more than a good-sized hill. But in the Champaign Region of Southern France in the fall of 1918, this "white mountain" was of great strategic importance to both the occupying German Army and the advancing Allied forces.
In the prior three years, the French Army had been unable to dislodge the enemy from this fortified position. To that end, 93 years ago this week, it took U.S. Marines and U.S. Army infantrymen - including the aforementioned Army sergeant from coastal Maine and the Army private from rural Oklahoma - to drive the enemy from the ridge top and hasten their retreat. Thirty-three days later, on Nov. 11, 1918, the "Great War" was over.
Each WWI Company was composed of 250 men and officers. There were 12 companies in each regiment, totaling a little more than 3,000 men. Four regiments comprised a division.
My Grandfather Gay's Division - the 2nd Division - was unique in the sense that it was the only U.S. division in France during WW I that had both Army regiments (the 9th and the 23rd which was my Grandfather Gay's infantry regiment) and Marine regiments (the famous 5th and 6th).
Grandfather Carpenter's 36th Division (converted National Guard soldiers from Texas and Oklahoma) included four Army regiments, the 141st, the 142nd (my Grandfather Carpenter's infantry regiment), the 143rd and the 144th.
All four of Grandfather Gay's 2nd Division regiments went into battle at Blanc Mont on Oct. 3, 1918. Only the 141st and 142nd of Grandfather Carpenter's division went up Mont Blanc Ridge five days later on October 8. The two other regiments were kept in reserve.
The 2nd Division's WWI battle roster is the stuff of both legend and horror. It includes places whose mere mention (even 93 years later) sends a chill up the spine of anyone familiar with WWI or U.S. Military history: Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, Soissons and the southern Meuse-Argonne Campaign, including Blanc Mont. This division suffered over 14,000 casualties during the war and had over 5,000 killed in action. It ended up on the Meuse River on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918. And not surprisingly, they fought until the very moment when the war ended as the clock struck 11 a.m.
By the time of Blanc Mont, Grandfather Ernest Gay had fought almost continually for 234 days. He had been listed as missing in action for the first of three times on March 17, 1918, somewhere near Verdun.
Grandfather Carpenter's 36th Division (the "Texas-Oklahoma Division") was in combat just 22 days from Oct. 6 to Oct. 28. But although their time in action was short, they distinguished themselves as well. Despite initial setbacks, the 36th division rallied and pushed the enemy 13 miles due north of Blanc Mont to the Aisne River. When the division was pulled from the line on Oct. 28, it began preparing to re-enter combat operations two weeks later. Fortunately, for the sake both of humanity and my grandfather, the Armistice stopped the fighting 14 days later.
In late 1918, French Field Marshall Petain (later disgraced during WWII) hailed Grandfather Gay's 2nd Division and Grandfather Carpenter's 36th Division for their victory at Blanc Mont, calling their victory "The greatest single achievement of the 1918 Campaign." But the 36th Division paid a heavy price for their 22 days of combat: 2023 causalities, with 509 of those casualties killed in action.
The Untested and the Battle Weary
I have read many historic renditions of the battle and they all point to the uneasiness associated with bringing Grandfather Carpenter's 36th Division into the Blanc Mont fight. The 36th had never faced live fire. And although the enemy was reeling, they were still deeply entrenched on the northwest part of Blanc Mont Ridge.
More importantly, the left flank going up the ridge was still "up in the air" - exposed, thanks to the ineptitude of French forces and their inability to get up the hill and consolidate the line with the Americans on any of the previous five days. (Something the Marines and my other grandfather's 23rd Infantry had accomplished in a matter of hours on the first day of the battle on October 3.)
Second Division Commander Maj. Gen. John Lejeune preferred not to use Grandfather Carpenter's untested 36th Division at Blanc Mont. But in light of severe casualties to Grandfather Gay's battle-weary 2nd Division, he had no choice but to bring up the "Cowboy Division" (as he called them) in relief.
So while the 2nd Division regulars had the experience to enter the Blanc Mont battle on October 3, 1918, historians are nearly unanimous in their belief that the untested 36th Division should never have been sent up that hill that day to take over the fighting.
Again, however, Gen. Lejeune had no choice but to use the inexperienced 36th Division because:
1. The 5th Marine's casualty level of roughly 90 percent by the end of the second day of the battle had effectively knocked them out of the fight, and
2. The 23rd Infantry (which was on the 5th Marines' right for the first two days of the battle), had suffered terrible losses as well.
Written in 1919, the official history of the 5th Marines' 18th Company reported: "It is no more than just to mention here the part the 23rd Infantry played in the fight. They were on our right flank and but for them I fear there would have been but very few Marines left to tell the story."
Remarkably, the American troops at Blanc Mont were under the command of the French, and the French general in charge suggested very strongly to Lejeune that he use the inexperienced 36th Division. Lejeune reluctantly agreed.
One Grandfather Relieves the Other
In my mind, the most troubling entries in my Grandfather Carpenter's war diary are dated Oct. 8 and 9, 1918. Blanc Mont was one of the most gruesome battles in our nation's history and he and his fellow soldiers had to have some inkling of what they were marching towards.
As they drew closer to Blanc Mont, they must have known that one-half of the famous "Devil Dogs of Belleau Wood," the 5th Marines, had been all but wiped out four days earlier on the same ground they were about to traverse. The "will go over the top in 10 minutes" diary entry on October 8 gives me pause, and I cannot imagine what he was feeling.
Remarkably, at the very moment Grandfather Carpenter wrote that entry on October 8th, my other grandfather was less than 4,000 yards away - waiting, as he told my mother years later, for the "Texas-Oklahoma boys to come up and relieve us." Adding, "We were pretty shot-up."
During the Blanc Mont battle, the battle-tested 2nd Division suffered more than 4,100 casualties, including 726 killed in action. The vast majority of these casualties were suffered in the five days prior to my grandfather's untested 142nd Regiment going up the hill to relieve my other grandfather's weary 23rd Regiment.
As I mentioned above, the exposed left flank was the primary reason why the Marines and the 23rd Division were devastated during the heaviest fighting of the battle on Oct. 3-4. To be clear, what this meant for the untested 142nd and 141st soldiers was that - just like the 5th and 6th Marines and the 23rd five days before them - they not only faced enemy fire from the front as they went up that hill on Oct. 8, but from their left as well. Plus, they experienced a constant barrage of artillery shells (including gas shells) that rained down on them from behind the ridge top above as they descended Blanc Mont Ridge.
Contributing To the Carnage
Historians tell us that my Grandfather Carpenter's untested 36th Division had a tough day on Oct. 8th - but that wasn't just because they were new to battle. In addition to the left flank and the German forces that I've mentioned, it appears that some of the 2nd Division commanders were reluctant to give maps and other important documents to the 36th commanders.
Furthermore, because of the haste of their call-up, the 36th Division's artillery could not keep up with their infantry, so they went into battle relying on the 2nd Division and the French for artillery support. As a result, there were severe communication problems between the infantry and artillery - and it cost lives.
In fact, the 36th suffered horrible casualties on Oct. 8, including 75 officers and 1,314 enlisted men dead and wounded. My Grandfather Carpenter was right in the middle of it.
After relieving the weary 23rd Regiment on Oct. 8, the untested 36th Division's infantry regiments attacked towards the village of St. Etienne on the backside of Blanc Mont Ridge. There they met fierce resistance and had to fall back to a small hill on the ridge - a hill held by the 6th Marines - where they both successfully repulsed an enemy counterattack.
I think of my new-to-battle Grandfather Carpenter up on that hill the night of Oct. 8 with carnage all around him and uninterrupted German shells and machine gun fire raining down upon him. Behind him several hundred yards away, was my other grandfather in the just-recalled 23rd infantry.
A Hot Meal and Non-Stop Artillery
Uncertain that the line would hold through the night, Gen. Lejeune ordered the wearied 23rd back. My grandfather later told my mother that "at least we had a hot meal for the first time in five days before we were ordered back up the hill." The 23rd assumed reserve positions behind the 141st and 142nd regiments and hunkered down, so both grandfathers endured a nonstop artillery barrage throughout that awful night.
The fighting was still fierce on Oct. 9, as evidenced by Grandfather Carpenter's diary entry "a shell just went over my head and killed Lt. Lowery." The 36th however had a much stronger day as they battled the enemy around St. Etienne (with help from the late-arriving French!) and occupied parts of it. Three days later they would defeat the remaining enemy in and around St. Etienne and rejoin the rest of their division. The entire division then successfully marched north until Oct. 28, driving a retreating-yet-still-dangerous enemy back every step of the way. The decimated 23rd Regiment was finally pulled out of the line on Oct. 11; it was the 36th's show now, all the way to the Aisne River.
My grandfathers were not individually-decorated soldiers (although both were gassed and my Grandfather Gay was reported missing in action three times), but they were heroic in every sense of the word. Blanc Mont was part of the larger Meuse-Argonne Battle, which was the costliest battle in the history of our nation. Over six weeks, the American forces endured 120,000-plus casualties, including more than 26,000 dead.
British, French and German historians can say what they want about America's role in the First World War, but the fact remains that the war ended sooner rather than later because of men like my grandfathers. The commander of all American forces, Maj. Gen. John Pershing, did not bring the American military to France to man trenches in a maddening war of attrition; he brought the American military to France to fight "standing up and going forward!"
Is it remarkable that the children of these two soldiers married forty years later? Probably not, considering that well over a million Americans served in France in one capacity or another. But I think the coincidences and proximity of my grandfathers' service is compelling, and it does make an interesting story?a story I am now grateful to know and share.
My regret is that I didn't have this information earlier in my life. There are so many questions that I would like to ask my grandfathers, although I'm not convinced that either of them would have answered me. The great thing is that the two former soldiers did have an opportunity to discuss their respective service on two occasions, once in 1959 after the birth of my older sister Kim, and then again in the late 1960s when all of the Carpenters visited my mom's parents at their home in Jonesboro, Maine.
Without question, my favorite entry in my Grandfather Carpenter's diary is Oct. 29, 1918, when he wrote: "We are out at last!!!!" The four exclamation points say it all: after all, the reason I am alive to write about this at all is because - somehow - Pvt. Albert Carpenter and Sgt. Ernest Gay got "out at last."