I somehow ended up with a random, scattered collection of a few of H W Anderson’s snapshots, from his trips and tours from the end of his days. A handful of places and people significant to him, but, in his own manner, rarely labeled. Two of them drove me crazy. Instead of buildings, battlefields, or people, these two are of a French wooded hillock. They appear to be in sequence (See A, B).
And they appear to be connected to a third photo, of HWA (probably taken by Marietta) standing by a town signpost, St. Agnan, along French route D20.
As I have developed the overwhelming ability to self-distract and chase down random, useless wormholes, I decided to get to the bottom of this:
Why would an aged veteran on a twilight tour of France, take a sequence of two pictures of French farmland?
What would compel a special trip to the area, and to stop and take a pic by a town sign, in the middle of nowhere, and then a two-shot panorama of some random French wooded ridge?
First, what was the significance of St. Agnan? That was pretty easy: on July 15, 1918, one-hundred one and three years ago, the Germans launched their last major offensive of World War I, across the Marne River, east of Paris. And in the cleverly-titled book, The German Offensive of July 15, 1918 (which I highly recommend to everyone interested in spending 910 pages and 8 maps with our friends the Crown Prince Rupprecht, Colonel Fox Connor, Colonel R.H.C. Kelton (my favorite), and Colonel-General von Boehn) we find that, on July 15th, 1st Battalion, 103rd Engineer Regiment occupied woods near Grande Fontaine, in support of the 109th Infantry Regiment. The History of the 28th Division picks up the story (because the 103rd Engineers and 109th Infantry were part of the 28th Division, made up of the former National Guard of Pennsylvania. Anderson had even briefly (two-and-a-half months) been a member of the 109th), in the delightful five-volume, 2,700-page (and then some) account.
By July 16th, the Germans had crossed the Marne River and were set to continue their offensive, which threatened to push through the Franco-American lines. But by the summer of 1918, things were different than earlier in the war. Instead of waiting for the continued German assault, all along the line the Allies prepared a counterstroke. In the night, the 1st Battalion, 103rd Engineers moved up to a small hilly patch of woods, Bois de Rougis, to occupy some shallow trenches (Anderson called them “a scratch on the ground, a few inches deep”), behind the 109th Infantry as it prepared to counterattack. The promised French artillery support never materialized, and the French Infantry, who were supposed to join in the attack adjacent to the 109th, never appeared. The 109th launched their unsupported attack anyway, sweeping out of the trees and down the slope toward their objective, the small village of St. Agnan. All along the Marne front, the Allies counterattacked, and in most places, uprooted the Germans and hurled them back across the river. In most places. But not in St. Agnan. The Germans had established strong machine gun positions in the night, and when the Pennsylvanians charged down the hill, with no supporting artillery or infantry, they were cut to pieces. One of the leaders of the attack, Captain Walter Gearty, of Philadelphia, was hit and killed almost immediately, by three machine gun bullets in his neck. The infantry made several attempts during the day; all failed to dislodge the Germans. This drew attention to the 109th and its starting point – the Bois de Rougis. Throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th the engineers were raked with machine gun fire (St. Agnan being only a half-mile north of the woods), strafed by aircraft, and shelled by explosive and gas artillery shells. This was the first combat action for 27-year old Captain H. Wallis Anderson, the Adjutant of 1st Battalion, 103rd Engineers.
Because of the pressure up and down the line, including the bloody sacrifice of the 109th Infantry, the Germans were forced to withdraw. The German Army never again took the offense in the war.
Thanks to Google Maps, find D20, heading east into St. Agnan (nine miles east of Château-Thierry). Rotate the view to the right/south, and one can clearly make out the ‘finger’ of the Bois de Rougis, where Anderson endured three days of a brutal fight.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why an 80-year old takes a sequence of two pictures of seemingly mundane French farmland, 50-plus years later.