The few survivors who were able to do so swam across a river entangled in barbed wire or picked their way across a dam to safety on the opposite shore.
Carlisle men were among the soldiers of Company G who stood their ground for hours against a thousand German shock troops overrunning the French town of Fismette.
It was Aug. 27, 1918. American forces were on the move on the Western Front. Cumberland County men had mustered out with fellow guardsmen based in Erie to form a unit of the 112th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division.
Allen J. Stevens and Merle G. Coover recalled the memory of the attack in a feature story published in The Sentinel on Aug. 17, 1967. The men were organizing a reunion of their old unit when they were interviewed by the newspaper.
‘Hell let loose’
For whatever reason, this story did not attribute information to a particular individual. Instead the article read as the combined effort of Stevens, a retired Army colonel, and Coover, county director of veterans’s affairs.
“On Aug. 26 we received orders to relieve the unit holding Fismette. We moved out under the cover of darkness with about 135 men. We reached our position facing the German line about midnight.
“During the wee hours of the morning the Germans opened up artillery on our left flank. We learned later that the 77th Division was supposed to move across the Vesle River and didn’t, leaving a gap.”
Fismette is located northeast of Paris between Soissons and Reims on the north bank of the river. In his book “With the 112th In France,” World War I veteran James A. Murrin wrote about the tragedy that befell the defenders:
“Early on the morning of Aug. 27, hell let loose in Fismette. Before Companies G and H could get their positions well organized ... the Germans launched a surprise attack under a heavy barrage that cut off help from south of the river and prevented many of the SOS signals and flares from being seen.
“Companies G and H were literally wiped out as fighting organizations of the 112th, sustaining casualties of 60 to 70 killed, 51 wounded (and) taken prisoner and 88 un-wounded also captured; this, out of a total combined strength ... of 230 men and four officers.”
Bombs and liquid Ffire
The morning of the attack, Murrin was stationed at a regimental command post and saw the first survivors make it to safety.
“Some water-logged through swimming across the Vesle, others slightly wounded and some gassed (victims of chemical attack).” Murrin kept a journal he referred to as “my little book,” which he quoted in his memoirs.
“At 4:15 (a.m.), after a heavy barrage that crept down the hillside and through the village, the enemy made an attack. The boys, either outnumbered or really excited, made a stand for an hour or more, and then fled. Some were captured, a number killed and more were listed as missing.
“Some Americans fled across the little bridge that spans the Vesle; others fought where they stood, in the shambles of houses, picking off the Germans with automatic rifles, Eddystones or bombs. Potato mashers were in plentiful use by the (Germans) who made a practice of throwing them in the doorways. Men were everywhere – and the dust and fog was so great that the survivors stated you couldn’t tell an American from a German without looking twice.”
“Eddystones” was probably a reference to a 1917 bolt action rifle used by the U.S. Army. “Bombs” and “potato mashers” are types of grenades. An eyewitness account from 2nd Lt. George Riggs of Co. H mentions another horrifying weapon.
“The Germans were coming up the street towards the east with liquid fire, shooting at the houses on the south side of the road. We killed the first two liquid fire men.” Riggs was probably describing a flamethrower.
Stevens and Coover recalled the artillery barrage as one of the worst they experienced during the war. The enemy had zeroed in and was pouring shells into the town. Wounded Americans were sheltered in wine and root cellars. When the German infantry arrived, they attacked on the rear and flanks of the Co. G position.
“Most of the men fought where they stood as long as they were able bowling over the attacking Germans until they lay in groups on the streets,” the 1967 story reads. Many of the Americans who reached the bridge were killed by enemy machine guns, which swept the span with a hail of bullets.
Private C.H. Wright was assigned to Co. G but does not appear on a Sept. 5, 1917 roster of Cumberland County men published in The Sentinel newspaper. Murrin quoted Wright in his memoirs but did not include the man’s hometown.
Stand and Fight
Wright called the artillery attack “the wickedest barrage I ever saw. We held our ground until it took the roof off, and then we went downstairs and kept up our observation there while in the building.
“But we couldn’t do much observation because of the smoke and fog. Then (the Germans) came down in big numbers – seemed to be a sort of mob rule with no organization. They seemed to be concentrating on this one post. We pulled out of the rear of the building and dropped down. Some of our fellows were still in dugouts on account of the barrage, and we told them to get out of there.
“Private Goodyear came from the headquarters with the word that Lt. Schmelzer said ‘Stand and fight.’ So we turned back, and just as three of us were going out the door of the court, a bomb dropped in front. It hit Cpl. Lightner, who fell on me. We bumped into two men from H Company. Then I saw another soldier near us; I thought he might be an American. But his helmet came down over his ears, and he had a potato masher in his hand. I pulled the lock on the rifle and pulled the trigger, but there was nothing in the chamber. I managed to load somehow, and shot him.”
The September 1917 roster lists three different local men named Goodyear – James M., Paul C. and Ray L. Paul C. Goodyear died in the war. The roster also lists Glen A. Lightner as one of unit corporals. He apparently survived. As for Wright, he made it across the bridge.
“All I can say is that there wasn’t much organization in that fight,” Wright said. “There were men all around coming out of holes, doors and windows into the street. The Americans and Germans were mixed up.”
During their interview with The Sentinel, Stevens and Coover mentioned a Lt. Joseph Landry who gave them orders Aug. 9 to relieve a unit of the 111th Infantry Regiment during a lull in earlier fighting.
The Murrin books mentions how the fighting was so intense at Fismette that 44 dead Germans were found around the body of Landry who was last seen firing away at the enemy with two pistols – one in each hand. A German sniper killed Landry who was regarded as a hero by the unit.