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Kansas Historical Quarterly - The Story of Company A

Third Kansas Infantry, in World War I

by Dean Trickett

May 1945 (Vol. 13 No. 6), pages 358 to 366.
Transcribed by lhn;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

AT DAWN on the morning of September 26, 1918, nine American divisions were in battle line ready to attack on a twenty-four mile front extending from a point on the Meuse river above Verdun westward to the far edge of the Argonne forest. They had moved in under cover of darkness.

The infantry had got into position about midnight. After loading and locking their rifles, the doughboys lay down on the ground and tried to sleep. But at 2:30 a. m. the artillery opened up. By 3 o'clock 2,600 guns were firing.

Shortly after 5 o'clock the platoon leaders began to assemble their men. The soldiers slung their packs, examined their rifles, and fell into line to await "H" hour. There was no breakfast.

At 5:30, without heroics and with little ceremony, the infantry went "over the top" all along the line. "Come on, let's go," said the platoon leader at "H" hour. Then, leading the way, he set his face to the north, walking forward into a murk of smoke and fog, his men following.

Among the attacking divisions was the Thirty-fifth-a consolidation of the Kansas and Missouri National Guards. In less than five days it lost 960 killed and 6,894 wounded. Its first battle was a baptism in blood.

One of the original units of that division-Company A, Third Kansas infantry-holds an annual reunion at Coffeyville on the Sunday nearest September 26. On September 24, 1944, the veterans met for the twenty-fifth time. It is one of the few companies of the first A. E. F.-it may be the only one-that have maintained a veterans' organization continuously since the close of World War I.

The boys who came back from France in the late spring of 1919 are now middle-aged men-too large of girth, too scant of breath, or too old for active service in the present war. Most of them are married, and many have sons in the armed forces of the nation.

The veterans are organized as a Last Man's Club, an association common among Civil War veterans. A few years ago the press carried a story about one in Indiana, with a picture of the last

Reprinted with minor changes from the Coffeyville Daily Journal, September 22, 1944.

(358)

 

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survivor. The aged Civil War veteran was seated at a table, surrounded by empty chairs. Before him was a bottle of wine, which he was to drink to the memory of his departed comrades.

A similar bottle is the center piece on the banquet table at the Company A reunions. It originally contained cognac-a potent drink well known to many A. E. F. veterans. A year or two ago the seal was accidentally broken, and much, if not all, of the liquid has evaporated. It will be replaced by a bottle of California wine. Sometime in the eighties or nineties this bottle will be opened by the "Last Man" of Company A.

The original members of the company came from Coffeyville or vicinity, and many of them continue to make their home there. The others are scattered from coast to coast. The mortality of the veterans has been surprisingly low. More than 85 percent are living today.

The Third Kansas infantry, of which the company became a part, was classed as a National Guard regiment. In reality, it was one of the last volunteer regiments taken into the Army of the United States. Recruited entirely after war was declared in April, 1917, it had a National Guard existence of less than three months.

During the early spring of 1917 six or seven young men who had received military training in National Guard units in Kansas or Missouri met of evenings at irregular intervals in Lape's furniture store in Coffeyville. They went through the manual of arms with a broom and turned some fancy right and left faces. Most of their time, however, was spent in discussing ways and means of raising a volunteer company if war came, as then seemed likely.

That there would be a call for volunteers they took for granted. Such had been the practice in all previous wars. They were mistaken, but their object was achieved indirectly.

After war was declared, the War Department submitted to congress a new and revolutionary plan for the organization of the army. It called for an expansion of the regulars by recruitment and by the absorption of the National Guard. A "second line" was to be formed by draft upon the nation's manpower and officered by regulars and graduates of officer training schools.

This proposed change in military policy ran the gauntlet of a furious debate in congress and emerged in somewhat altered form. Under the legislation, the regulars would be the first to fight, as in the original plan. The National Guard, however, would not be broken up, but would be reorganized and made the second line.

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Last would come a national army, obtained by selective draft. This policy has also been followed in the present war. The government has abandoned the volunteer system for keeps.

When the United States entered the war in April, Kansas had two infantry regiments. Later in the month, a third regiment was authorized.

Col. Charles McCrum, a citizen of Coffeyville and at one time a major general in the Kansas National Guard, got wind of the new regiment and obtained authority to raise one of the companies. Too old himself for active service, he seized this opportunity to "do his bit" for his country.

As a preliminary step, he posted a sheet of paper in his son's bookstore on West Ninth street for the signatures of volunteers. William H. Vermehren, who now commands the Coffeyville company in the new Kansas State Guard, was the first to sign. Within a day or two a score of volunteers added their names. Among them were the young men who met in the furniture store earlier in the spring. From this small group of former guardsmen, the first and second lieutenants, first sergeant, and supply sergeant of the company were chosen.

An empty store building on West Ninth was pressed into service as a recruiting office. When the company was mustered into state service a few weeks later, it was given the letter "A" designation, although it was not the first company of the regiment to be sworn in. Somewhere behind the scenes, Colonel McCrum had pulled the right wires.

Edgar H. Dale, who was employed as an engineer on the Welland canal in Canada, returned to Coffeyville to become captain of the company. He had formerly been a lieutenant under McCrum in the Kansas National Guard. A gallant and accomplished soldier, Captain Dale was the most beloved of the four commanders under whom the company served during the war. He was killed in action in the Argonne in September, 1918.

His son, Edgar H. Dale II, about four years old at that time, was graduated from West Point in the class of 1938. Assigned to the Philippines, he was a captain of infantry under MacArthur when the Japanese attacked. He was cited for bravery on Bataan, where he was wounded and taken prisoner. Word was received in the fall of 1943 that he had died in a prison camp in Japan.

During the early summer the company was recruited to war strength. Once a week the volunteers drilled on the Plaza, across

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which on a memorable morning in October, 1892, an enraged citizenry had poured lead into the Dalton gang, which tried to rob two banks at the same time. Drilling was limited to facings and marching. Rifles were not issued until after the company arrived at Camp Doniphan, where it trained, and where for several weeks the boys walked guard with sticks across their shoulders.

At that time few of the volunteers knew anything about the ways of the army. When it was announced one evening that the next drill would be held at a park a. mile or two from the Plaza, a new recruit asked, "How are we going to get there?" Like many youths raised in a city, he had forgotten what legs are for.

The company was mustered into federal service on August 5. Shortly afterward, an issue of clothing was received. The assortment of sizes, however, was inadequate, and many of the members failed to get their full allowance. The shortage was general throughout the army and was not wholly relieved until the following spring. Some members of the company went through the record cold winter of 1917-1918 without an overcoat.

There is a marked difference in style between the uniform of 1917 and that worn in the army today. The high choke collar of the blouse has given way to the comfortable lapel collar, and the close-fitting jodhpur type of breeches has been superseded by roomy long trousers. The stand-up collar is said to have been devised by the British to conceal the dirt on Tommy Atkins' shirt-if, by any chance, he happened to be wearing one. But they abandoned the preposterous fashion long before we did.

The smart garrison cap, so popular in the early days of the present war, was rarely seen at Camp Doniphan. The Kansans and Missourians wore broad-brimmed Stetsons, of which they were proud. It is a Western hat, worn on the frontier for years and still not uncommon in the Southwest. At the port of debarkation in France, the members of Company A reluctantly turned in their Stetsons, and accepted the dinky overseas cap with misgiving. In time, however, they developed a quiet pride in the diminutive headgear, which became the badge of the first A. E. F.

Laced canvas leggings were worn in the summer and fall of 1917. Later on, wrap spirals were issued. They, too, were of English origin. Before the spirals became government issue, they were worn surreptitiously by the Beau Brummels of the company, who bought them at army stores. The boys quickly mastered the trick of handling the long roll of cloth and became so adept they could wrap a neat spiral in their sleep, which, in fact, they often did-at reveille. A good shoe is absolutely essential to infantry. Of a number of styles issued to the company, the hobnails were the best. They seemed heavy and clumsy at first, but proved an excellent marching shoe. In France, after the Armistice, the company received an issue of English army shoes. Black leather, too. But the straight last put so many of the boys on sick call that the army doctors ordered the issue turned in.

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Company A left Coffeyville on August 25 for Camp Doniphan, in southwestern Oklahoma. Tacked alongside the coaches of the special train was a cloth banner bearing a legend in block letters: "144 STRONG AND EVERY MAN A VOLUNTEER." The members were proud of their status. The volunteer system had grave defects, no doubt, but it fostered an esprit de corps among the young and adventurous civilians who joined the colors of their own free will.

Months later their pride suffered a rude shock. While in camp on Long Island, just prior to going overseas, the company received an increment of draftees. One day some of the boys were ragging them with the favorite wheezes of that time, such as "Who left the door open?" or "When did you blow in?" One of the draftees stood as much as he could, then exploded. "The only reason you fellows enlisted," he shouted, "was to keep from being drafted!" The ragging dissolved in a gale of laughter and was never resumed.

Oddly enough, the original members of the company had been compelled to register for the draft on June 5, 1917, although they were then in the National Guard, though not in Federal service. For months this unjust treatment rankled. When draft questionnaires were received at Doniphan late in the fall, many of the members refused to make them out and threw them away. Later on, a rumor floated around that the recalcitrants had been posted as draft dodgers by their boards, but nothing came of it.

When Company A arrived at Doniphan, the camp was far from complete. The company had been sent on a month in advance of the regiment to prepare for its coming. At first, this was considered an,honor. But after a week or two at day laborers' tasks of digging ditches, unloading hay, and the like, the boys had another name for it.

The comfortable barracks in the new army camps built during the present war have amazed the veterans of Company A. They

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have a feeling that they were "born twenty years too soon." At Doniphan they lived in tents--floored tents, it is true, but tents, nevertheless, with all their discomfort.

During the fall, the Thirty-fifth division was organized by combining the Kansas and Missouri National Guards. The Fourth Missouri infantry was consolidated with the Third Kansas to form the 139th regiment. Nearly half the officers lost their commands. Among them was Captain Dale. He was later assigned to a company in the Second battalion of the regiment.

The companies were increased in size to about 250 men. The Missourians who joined the Kansans of Company A were from Tarkio. They already were seasoned soldiers, having been on the Mexican border the previous year with the National Guard.

The training in the infantry camps today is more practical and efficient than that which the company underwent at Camp Doniphan. During the first four months the training program was based on trench warfare as practiced on the Western Front. The boys spent weeks digging trenches to make an artilleryman's holiday. When finished, the carefully shaped traverses and smooth parapets were pulverized by high explosives. On the bayonet course-at the sharp commands of "In! Out! On guard!"-the boys lunged savagely at dummy Boches, but it is doubtful if any member of the division ever stuck a bayonet into a German. Trained from youth to throw baseball fashion, they wrenched their shoulders mastering the windmill style of lobbing hand grenades. Dummies, of course. They never handled live ones in this country.

In midwinter the army junked the trench-warfare program and reverted to the traditional American system of training for open warfare. The trench fighters unhooked their bayonets and tried out their Springfields on the rifle range. During the remaining months of their stay at Camp Doniphan they maneuvered to the commands of "Keep your intervals. Watch your distance. Don't close up." In the second week of April, 1918, Company A entrained with its regiment for Camp Mills, near Hempstead, Long Island, where it remained about two weeks.

One night in the latter part of April the company ferried around the lower end of Manhattan and boarded the transport Caronia. Early in the morning the Caronia dropped slowly down the Hudson. Through open portholes the boys waved good-by to the Statue of

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Liberty. The Great Adventure had begun. A day later the transport joined a convoy in the open Atlantic.

Before the war the Caronia was a Cunard liner on the Liverpool-Boston and New York run. After four years of war service it was refitted and converted to oil burning and later transferred to the London-New York run. In January, 1932, it was sold for scrapping to a British shipbreaking company, which in the following November resold it to Japanese shipbreakers-an ignoble fate for a noble ship.

The Atlantic crossing was cold and windy, with high seas running. To avoid submarines, the convoy was routed far to the north, reaching at one time the latitude of the southern tip of Greenland. Near the Scottish coast it turned southward into the Irish Sea. The Caronia docked at Liverpool on the morning of May 7. The Liverpool morning papers were commemorating the third anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania.

Late in the afternoon the company entrained for southern England, where it went into quarantine. Thousands of Britons lined the streets of Liverpool through which the regiment marched to the railway station. Their rousing cheers were the last the regiment received until it returned to the United States a year later. In France the people were apathetic. They had suffered three years and a half of devastating war and had seen many soldiers.

After a short stay in quarantine, the company crossed the Channel-from Portsmouth to Le Havre-on the Northwestern Miller, a cattle boat. It was a night crossing, prolonged until the afternoon of the following day by a zig-zag course taken to avoid submarines. The boys bunked in the cattle stalls, pillowing their heads on their packs.

At Le Havre the company was billeted in a British camp on the high bluff overlooking the port. A day or two later the members were issued steel helmets and fitted with gas masks. Here they lost their Stetsons and, what hurt even more, their Springfields, which they exchanged for British Enfields. The division was being sent north to bolster a hard-pressed British line.

It was a time of great anxiety for the Allies. In halting two German attacks, the British army had been badly mauled. There was danger of a general debacle. The British casualties had been over 300,000. Facing the crisis, General Pershing went to General Foch, the Allied commander, and said: "All that we have are yours. Use

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them as you wish." Nine American divisions were sent to the British area.

Late on a May afternoon, after a grueling hike from a way station in Picardy, where it detrained, Company A entered a small village in northern France. The boys pitched their pup tents in an orchard on the outskirts. After chow, they lay around, dog-tired. It was very quiet. As dusk approached, conversation lagged, and the boys became aware of a low rumbling sound. Instinctively, they looked at the sky. Not a cloud was in sight. What could it be? The answer came by intuition. It was the guns on the Western Front. Thirty or forty miles away was the war they had sought through twelve months of time and 4,000 miles of space. The Kansans and Missourians did not get along very well with the British. "They did not like the British noncoms, or the British soldiers, or the British officers," said a division historian bluntly. "They conspicuously (sic) disliked the British rations, and they loathed tea for breakfast."

Their stay with the British, however, was short. When the Germans made their third great attack of the spring of 1918 on May 27, they struck in the direction of Paris, instead of the Channel. The British no longer needed the Americans, and the Thirty-fifth was transferred to a training area in eastern France.

It is not the purpose here to detail the humble part that Company A played in the war. Its contribution is inseparably bound up with that of the regiment and division. An itinerary must suffice.

During June and July the company trained in the peaceful valley of the upper Moselle. August was spent in the trenches in the Vosges mountains. It was a quiet sector, although the company came under fire for the first time on its way in.

The night of September 11-12 has not yet been forgotten by the veterans of Company A. In a drizzling rain, over muddy roads choked with artillery and ammunition wagons, the boys marched all night, only to be kept in reserve during the St. Mihiel offensive, which began at dawn.

A week later the company was moved to the Meuse-Argonne region. The boys rode in lorries, driven at breakneck speed by grinning Annamese, whose teeth were black from betel-nut chewing.

After the company came out of the Argonne, in which the division suffered such a staggering loss, the boys spent a short time in a rest camp. Then they went into the trenches south of Verdun, a

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fairly quiet sector. Their most troublesome enemy was the rats, which, in search of food, would gnaw through a pack in no time. The company was relieved four or five days before the Armistice. After several weeks of aimless wandering, it was billeted in Vignot, a village across the Meuse river from Commercy, where division headquarters was established.

There the company spent the winter of 1918-1919-drilling and maneuvering in the rain and snow. What for? No one knew. That is, no one but Til Bucher, the company cook. He came back from the rifle range one day covered with mud and hopping mad. "It's them damned Du Ponts," he raged. "They're the cause of this. We've got to shoot up all the powder they sold the government."

The veterans of Company A have a warm affection for the totally insignificant but typically French village of Vignot. It was there that the veterans' association was organized in the early spring of 1919. Hugh W. "Flash" Clark, who was elected secretary, has served through the greater part of the intervening years. Christmas of 1918 was celebrated in all the villages of the Meuse valley where Kansans and Missourians were billeted. It was a great treat for the French children. They have no Christmas, no Santa Claus, no gifts. On Christmas Eve the boys of Company A hung up their army socks in the Y. M. C. A. hut. The children were puzzled and amused at the queer ways of the Americans. But on Christmas Day they crowded around, and the boys filled their outstretched . hands with candy and nuts.

Nearly a decade later, W. Y. Morgan, a Kansas editor, who had been a Y. M. C. A. man with the division, traveled through the Meuse valley. He still commanded a smattering of war-time French, and talked with a group of French people who gathered about him at Sampigny, where he had been stationed. Their recollections of the American occupation were hazy until he asked them if they remembered the American Christmas-Noel Amerique, he translated. "That hit the bell," he wrote in a letter home, "for they broke into enthusiastic expressions and I was afraid the mayor was going to kiss me. I dodged in time." Several women in the group said they remembered the celebration, and a girl of seventeen said she and some other children had sung songs for the soldiers and received presents.

American soldiers were in France again last Christmas. There was a second Noel Amerique, and a new generation of French children were puzzled at the queer ways of the Americans. Puzzled and delighted.