This day in 1918: The Battle for Saint-Etienne, France

M A 1918 Cemetery

The United States declared war on Germany on April 1, 1917. Germany had offered to return Texas and the other border states to Mexico if it would join the war on Germany’s side. Germany also announced that it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

The declaration of war was more bark than bite; the United States army was small and untrained. National Guard units were nationalized and, in Texas at least, local leaders volunteered to recruit local companies. The 7th Texas Regiment, recruited from the counties between Fort Worth and the far reaches of the mostly uninhabited Panhandle, was created and incorporated into the Texas 36th Division as the 141st and 142d Infantry. Their training at Camp Bowie from August 1917 to July 1918 consisted of drilling without rifles and training without real cannons, a charade rehearsal for trench warfare that was about to change, a deadly cold winter in tents, and a false sense of skill that would come up short when they went into harm’s way.

In July, 1918, the 36th Infantry Division arrived in France and was sent to Bar Sur Aube, southeast of Paris and near the front, for more training. It was called up to the line in late September. On October 5 to 7, 1918, the 141st and 142d were detached from the parent division and put directly in the line in front of the village of Saint Etienne in the Meuse-Argonne sector. Things quickly went wrong.

The generals who were in charge of the division and its brigades were replaced. Their successors, in turn, replaced most of the field grade commanders, leaving the company and battalion commanders and their men under new leaders who had neither the relationship with the men nor the grasp of the division’s actual situation. They in turn were placed under the command of the French Fourth Army on the left of the line. Communication was poor.

The trench war training that the men had taken in Texas was already obsolete by October; the Allies had pushed the German army out of the trenches and back toward the border for the first time in four years, resulting in warfare that called for attacks on the line supported by tanks. However, the generals sent the men into the line without tank support.

Worse, the small units were led into the wrong position to jump off the attack. They were guided in error to a point about one hundred yards west of their assigned point of attack with the consequence that, when the attack came, the men had to move at a diagonal across fields of machine gun fire and be exposed for a longer period than if they had attacked from the intended location. Their exposure was not obvious to them because of a problem with the unit battle maps, below.

The division decided at midnight on October 7 that the two units would attack Saint-Etienne head on, with the 142d assigned to cross a plain, a stream, and a road in the open. Company L was ordered to charge and take a church and cemetery on the east side of the village where a German machine gun in the bell tower was raking the American line. However, the commanders did not get the orders to the units until five a.m. on October 8, and the order of battle called for the attack to commence at 5:15. To complete the tragedy, the battle maps were cut, not assembled, so that each section of the commanders’ maps was on a separate square; no one could look at the entire battle area on a single sheet of paper.

Company L somehow managed to go on the attack at 5:15. By six in the morning it had sustained over fifty per cent casualties, including the deaths of the wire cutting party that had been sent in front of the church. My ancestor, Private Thomas Graves, died in the barbed wire, shot by a machine gun, saying to his fellow soldiers to go on without him.

He and the other men of the 7th Texas Regiment who died at Saint Etienne were buried in the cemetery that they were assigned to capture, along with the German soldiers who defended it.
This was the unit’s first engagement in combat, thirty-four days before the declaration of Armistice on November 11, 1918.

Two years later, they were removed to the Meuse Argonne American Military Cemetery near Romagne, France. It is our largest military cemetery in Europe.