Jaine's European Trip 2018 travel blog

General location of the Meuse-Argonne area

Varennes/Charpentry area where Grandpa was wounded

Rue de la Gare (Train Station Street) where Grandpa's depot used to...

Rue de la Gare

At the town sign for Varennes

At the turn-off for Charpentry

American Memorial in Varennes

Town of Varennes

Listening to the briefing at Varennes

American Hospital #1 in Vichy, France, where Grandpa was sent

USS Maui, the ship that brought Grandpa home

Columbia certificate

21st Engineers Insignia pin

21st Engineers riding the rails

French watching Americans arrive to liberate their town

Very poignant sculpture of rescue from muddy shell hole

Meuse-Argonne traffic jam

Grandpa in his Ford Model T


Today, we went into the Meuse-Argonne region (see map), scene of the bloodiest battle in U.S. history. We lost over 47,000 men there, including 26,000 on the first day alone. In its scale and in the number of American and French troops involved, not only infantry but artillery, tanks, engineers...just the logistics in this made it the largest operation that the American armed forces had been in to that point. The Americans faced the task of dislodging the Germans from land so easy to defend and difficult to attack. Although the American offensive was much slower than Pershing’s intentions, the ambitious offensive, along with a dying German Army, as well as weakened allies and alliances, resulted in the German request for surrender in November of 1918.

Surprising the Germans, the American forces snuck undetected into the region immediately following the St. Mihiel battle, moving the entire First Army under cover of darkness. It’s only about 20 miles away, but there were only a few roads into the region and they were bogged down by traffic jams and horses pulling artillery through a couple feet of mud. Exhausted horses were falling and having to be shot and dragged off the road (see the movie, War Horse?). Wagon wheels were breaking and carts overturning. Trucks stuck. Infantry trying to march along with the column. I'm sure it all looked good on paper, but this was not the finest hour for the U.S. logistians. In any case, what was moving well was the railroad.

A word about the mud during WWI. 1917-18 was the rainiest year in France in recorded history, verified for me by the diaries of a few men in Grandpa’s unit. It just rained all the time, turning the roads, fields, and trenches to knee-deep mud. In the fall, winter, and spring, it was cold rain--and really windy. For those who caught the flu during this time, death came fast. Fittingly, we had some weather like that during one day at the trenches and we could not wait to get back on the bus after 10 minutes. The mud in northeastern France is a special kind of glooey substance. The difference between this mud and typical U.S. mud is like the difference between Krazy Glue and Scotch tape. Once it gets on your shoe or clothes, there’s no scraping it off. If you try to use your right shoe to scrape the mud off your left shoe, your shoes become bonded together. You have to sort of peel it off in sheets like really sticky PlayDoh. And there is no getting it off your clothes. (I just threw away a pair of jeans.) So imagine trying to walk through it for days, or keeping your feet dry, or staying warm. Then imagine having to dive into muddy, flooded shell craters to escape fire and then sleep there all night. When this mud dries, it becomes almost like brick. Many nurses reported having wounded men come in encased in ceramic that had to be chipped off them before treatment.

Grandpa’s outfit followed the First Army into the Argonne, with the tracks running along the Aire River, in the Argonne Forest (see map). They pitched pup tents outside the once-pretty village of Varennes, later moving into the river train depot, which became a casualty clearing station for the wounded coming from the battle. Grandpa’s unit ran the trains from Varennes through Charpentry to Cheppy, scene of fierce fighting, hauling ammunition, food and supplies to the fast moving front and carrying back the wounded 24/7. As a mechanic, he was riding the train to be sure it kept running no matter what.

The Germans were, of course, trying to bomb our supply lines, so the steam from the train engine was a giveaway as to the train locations during the day. At night, they ran without lights, with spotters riding on the front of the engines trying to see whether there was bomb damage to the tracks. If there was a section of track missing, they would quickly unload 12-foot sections of narrow-gauge track and patch the rails so they could go on. If they didn’t have enough spare sections, sometimes they would have to tear up some of the track they had already passed over and move it in front of the train, reversing the process on the way back. They siphoned water from flooded shell holes to fuel the steam engine as they went, shoveling coal into the engine to create steam. The tracks were so close to the surrounding trees that one of grandpa’s comrades was decapitated as he stuck his head outside a car to try to see in the darkness.

Our tour went to Varennes today and not only saw the HUGE American war monument, but also drove down Rue de la Gare (Train Station Street, in French) former location of the WWI depot where Grandpa's unit slept and where the casualty clearing station was. The town was pretty much in ruins at the end of the war. The bus driver found the Rue de la Gare on his GPS and made sure to drive down the street. And Iain very nicely stopped the bus for pictures at the road signs for me. I showed my touring mates pictures of Grandpa (of which they were so envious) and told them the story of his wounding as I understand it so far.

On the night of Oct. 23, in the pouring rain, between Varennes and Charpentry, an artillery shell struck very near Grandpa's train, exploding shrapnel (ragged pieces of iron loaded inside the shell) through the train engine and cars. A red hot piece of shrapnel shot through Grandpa’s right leg, about 6 inches above the knee. He must have ridden the train back to Varennes, where they had a casualty clearing station. From there, he was shipped to an American hospital unit in Vichy, France, south of Paris. (See photo showing the two small hotels that had been converted to a hospital for Americans.) From there, he wrote to his Aunt Helena telling her about the injury and where he was. It was the end of the war for him.

Normally, you wouldn't think that a shrapnel wound that had not hit a bone would be a minor wound, and in terms of the horrible wounds that many men suffered during WWI, it was relatively minor. But Grandpa was in the hospital from Oct. 24 until Nov. 19 (a week after the Armistice had been signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918). That tells me that the wound must have been very infected (remember this is before antibiotics). Reports are that most men were only allowed to shower once a month and that they had only one wool uniform, usually crawling with lice. Having come straight from he battle at St. Mihiel, they were all probably filthy.

Anyway, Grandpa wrote again to Aunt Helena in late November that he had been released from the hospital and had returned to the Meuse-Argonne region to try to locate his unit, but had not been able to do so. (They had been disbanded by then and attached in small groups to other units who were making sure that the Germans did not regroup and re-enter France.) So he was assigned to Co. H of the 318th Infantry, a Virginia unit in the area and about to head back to the rear. (This is why the 318th Infantry is what was eventually listed on his gravestone.) The 318th then began a 220 km (about 137 mi.) march back from LaChalade in the Argonne to Asnieres-en-Montagne, south of Paris, near where he had been in the hospital! They covered the march in 10 days, arriving in Asnieres on Nov. 29. Grandpa was probably the only one in the unit with new boots, which he would have been given when he got out of the hospital. He wrote to Aunt Helena that they marched all day and slept in the fields at night on the way. Asnieres-En-Montagne was a massive Army camp where hundreds of thousands of soldiers stayed until ships became available to take their units back to the U.S.

Just to finish the story, Grandpa's unit sailed from Brest, France, on the U.S.S. Maui on May 17 and arrived in Newport News, VA, on May 27, 1919. He probably marched in the homecoming parade in Newport News before catching the train to Detroit, where he mustered out on June 9th. His final mustering out pay was $110.97 plus a $60 wartime bonus.

World War I was before the Purple Heart was given to war injured. They received instead a wound chevron of gold metallic-thread chevron on an Olive Drab backing to be displayed on the lower right cuff of a military uniform. In addition, Grandpa received the "Columbia Certificate," signed by President Woodrow Wilson. ("Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" is a patriotic song popular in the 19th and early 20th century and used on occasion as an unofficial national anthem before "The Star-Spangled Banner" was adopted as the national anthem of the United States in 1931. Columbia is the statue at the top of the U.S. capital.) I have a framed original of Grandpa's Columbia Certificate. I says "Columbia gives to her son the new accolade of the New Chivalry of Humanity. Russell S. Gates, Corp., Co. F., 21st Engineers, served with honor and distinction in the World War and was wounded in action. (signed) Woodrow Wilson."

Grandma Gates told me that Grandpa had saved up most of his Army pay while he was gone, so was able to go right to the Ford factory when he mustered out and pay cash for a brand new Model T, which he drove home to Jackson and was able to use to commute to the MCRR yard for work thereafter. He was still driving that Model T after Mom was born.

Grandpa met Bertha Rigelman in 1923 at a Masonic dinner dance. Years later, JoDee audiotaped Grandma Gates telling the story:

"We dated for three years and then got married. He met me after work with his rumbly old car. They had to go to work early—around 7.00—-so he got off early and I didn’t get off until 5.00. So he just insisted on picking me up every night. I had told him I don’t want to go steady. I had gone with someone steady and I didn’t care for it much. So I would rather not get involved again. So he said, “I’m not going to ask you to go steady, but I’m going to take you so many places that you won’t have any time for anybody else.” And that’s what he did. We went to dances and all the nice places. We went to football games in Ann Arbor. And took Ethel and Rick and Nancy. And we went all these places. And then we became engaged after a couple years. You mom says, “How did Dad propose to you.” As I remember, all he said was, “I’d like to buy you a ring. I want you to go along with me and help pick out the stone and setting.” And the rest is history!



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