The Battle of Vierstraat Ridge
(31 August - 2 September 1918)
Training by the British Army in France
From their arrival in France in May 1918 the US 27th and 30th Infantry Divisions, each consisting of 25,000 men, were trained by the British Army at the Bay of the Somme, at Rue and St. Valery-sur-Somme.
Both divisions were equipped with British equipment and British rifles!
Major General O’Ryan, commanding officer of the 27th, gives the reason in his account, “The Story of the 27th Division”:
“The explanation of this is to be found in the condition already mentioned, that the American troops arrived in France short of much of the materiel requisite not only for combat, but for training. It was necessary, therefore, that upon receipt of machine guns, Lewis guns, Stokes mortars, one pounders, grenades, wireless, sanitary and engineer equipment, the men should be trained in the use of this British type of materiel and armament. (....) In relation to the latter it was determined that the 27th and 30th Divisions should turn in their modified Enfield rifles, because they required the .30 caliber American ammunition, and to substitute for them the British rifles, caliber .303. This step was necessary in order that the two American divisions might use British ammunition and thus avoid complications in ammunition supply which would otherwise occur.”
In the second half of July 1918 both American divisions were given the task of further preparing for defence of the "East Poperinghe Line" and of occupying and holding it in the event of attack.
In July and August 1918 these US divisions were integrated and assigned to the XIX Army Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Herbert Watts, a component of the 2nd Army of General Plumer. (Only from October 1918 would these two Divisions operate, under the direct command of Major General Read, as the Second American Corps.)
18 August – 4 September 1918 - The 30th Division
During the period of 18 August – 4 September 1918 the 30th Division attacked the sector, north of the hamlet of Vierstraat, from Dickebusch Lake (Flemish: Dikkebus) at Voormezele and Zillebeke Lake.
The Battle of Vierstraat Ridge covered this period, culminating between 31 August and 2 September 1918. The goal of the 53rd Infantry Brigade of the 27th Division was to re-capture a part of the Lys Salient, formed after the German offensive of April 1918 including the area around Mount Kemmel.
US 27th Division and the Battle of Vierstraat Ridge
The 30th Division attack in the north in a sense therefore acted as a pivot for the south-east attack of the 53rd Brigade of the 27th Division in this southern battle sector between Voormezele, Vierstraat and Kemmel.
The 53rd Brigade of the 27th Division, commanded by Brigadier General Albert H. Blanding, was composed of the 105th and 106th Infantry Regiments and the 105th Machine Gun Battalion.
Its opponent was the 8. Preussische Infanterie-Division from Saxony under Generalleutnant Arthur von Hamann, consisting of units of the 4. Thüringisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 72, Anhaltisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 93, 8. Thüringisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 153, 5. Eskadron/Magdeburgisches Husaren-Regiment Nr. 10, Torgauer Feldartillerie-Regiment Nr. 74, I. Bataillon/Reserve-Fußartillerie-Regiment Nr. 1, Pioniere-Bataillon Nr. 118.
31 August 1918
Correspondingly from the 30th Division pivot in the northern battle sector, on 31 August the advance of the left flank regiment of the 27th Division, the 105th under Major Charles W. Berry, was to extend southward. The 105th Infantry Regiment had to support the greater advance on its right by the 106th Infantry Regiment under Colonel William A. Taylor.
The boundary between the two regimental sectors was the road from Hallebast, south east of Dikkebus, running south-eastward through the hamlet of Vierstraat to Wijtschate, nowadays also called the Vierstraat.
With a "supporting artillery barrage" the 53rd Infantry Brigade attacked south-eastward this sector between Voormezele, Vierstraat and Kemmel and the line between and St. Eloi and Wijtschate, "Wytschaete Ridge".
In the afternoon of the first day of the Battle of Vierstraat Ridge, on 31 August, the 105th and 106th captured the “Vierstraat Switch” trench, partly running parallel to the N 331 from the north of Vierstraat to Rossignol Wood, north-east of Kemmel.
The Battle of Vierstraat Ridge according to Maj. Gen. O'Ryan
In his Chapter XIV, “The Battle of Vierstraat Ridge”, Maj. Gen. John F. O’Ryan provides more details. Contrary to his habit, in this chapter the General uses concise military language. I consider the words of the General himself still highly readable. His own experience from his headquarters at “Douglas Camp” gives us a good impression of the course of the battle. So, I present to you some interesting quotations of O’Ryan, sketching the events from his point of view. To make clear the military names of locations, I posted in between the text fragments images of details of O’Ryan’s battlefield sketch, interchanged by my modern satellite photo reconstructions. My intent is to help you to “navigate” through the battlefield names of O’Ryan’s interesting account of events.
Maj. Gen. O’Ryan writes:
“On the afternoon of August 31st the 105th Infantry advanced successfully, taking Captain's Post and Major's Post, which appear on the accompanying map, and consolidated their position in the trenches running along the easterly side of the York Road, advancing its left beyond Middle Farm.
In similar manner south of the highway above referred to, the 106th Infantry advanced in their sector across the Cheapside Road, and crossing the York Road, occupied and consolidated the enemy trenches known as Vierstraat Switch, running along the easterly side of York Road.
The attack of the 106th Infantry covered a greater depth than that of the 105th, as will be seen from an inspection of the map, the southern boundary line of their advance extending from the Milky Way to the V. C. Road east of Rossignol Camp.
By 5:00 P. M., both regiments were engaged in consolidating the new line, which included what was left of the village of Vierstraat. Both regiments had taken a number of prisoners and had captured considerable booty in the way of machine guns, anti-tank rifles, grenades, ammunition and other supplies.”
1-2 September 1918
From 1 September until the afternoon of 2 September the 106th I.R. had great difficulty in capturing the “Chinese Trench”, east of the N 331 and at the foot of Wijtschate Ridge.
Maj. Gen. O’Ryan tells us about these problems:
“The following day the 105th Infantry were to hold their position, while the 106th Infantry, with their left as a pivot, connecting with the 105th at the village of Vierstraat, were to advance on the right from Ft. Halifax until their line ran due north and south.
This movement was successfully made by the 106th Infantry, which had completed its task by 11:30 on the morning of September 1st. The enemy's defense from this time on was considerably strengthened.
The 105th Infantry, having extended its left beyond Middle Farm, now attacked Redoubt Farm and the trenches in Carré Farm, and later the railway and that part of the Chinese Trench within its sector.
At the same time the 106th, with its front extending north and south, attacked and took Chinese Trench on both sides of the Vierstraat-Wytschaete road, within its sector.
Captain Harry F. Sullivan's company, M of the 106th Infantry, with other detachments from the same regiment, got into the Chinese Trench but were subjected to a severe enemy artillery bombardment, preliminary to a counter-attack.
The casualties were such that Captain Sullivan withdrew the troops under his immediate command for a short distance and the enemy counter-attacking troops regained Chinese Trench. Orders having been issued for the retaking of Chinese Trench, an attack was made after artillery preparation and the trench was regained and held by parts of the 106th Infantry. By hard fighting the 106th Infantry on the same day advanced to the line of the railway near the foot of Wytschaete Ridge.
On the following day, the divisional line was advanced to Northern Brickstack on the south and thence due north along the ridge from Northern Brickstack to Middle Farm. This line was secured late in the afternoon of September 2d.”
Incident in the Chinese Trench
Maj. Gen. O’Ryan describes an incident in the Chinese Trench, which illustrates the German confidence in their elastic in-depth defence tactics, and also the poor quality of the 1918 German bandages:
“One interesting incident that happened in this battle occurred when two seriously wounded men of Captain Sullivan's company of the 106th Infantry were necessarily left in Chinese Trench when the company withdrew.
When the counter-attacking German forces entered the trench they found the two wounded soldiers of the 106th Infantry lying there. The latter apparently expected to be killed. Promptly their first aid packets were confiscated, but their wounds were dressed with German paper bandages and the men made as comfortable as could be under the circumstances.
A German officer, who spoke English, notified the men that his command were Saxon troops, who always treated their enemies in chivalrous manner. He added that the Americans were apparently preparing to retake the trench; that the Americans did not seem to care whether they were killed or not, and that the trench was not worth holding anyway. He added that his force would anticipate the counter-attack by retiring and that soon they would again be in the hands of their friends. Thereupon he and his men withdrew. Shortly thereafter, supported by artillery fire, through which the two wounded men happened to survive, the detachment of the 106th Infantry, as already narrated, retook the trench and heard from the wounded men the foregoing account of their experience.”
From: Major General John F. O’Ryan: “The Story of the 27th Division” (1921)
End of the Battle
In the afternoon of 2 September 1918 the 27th Division captured a line in front of the Bois Confluent, Bayernwald, and the Grand Bois, at the foot of Wytschaete Ridge. The division was relieved on the night of 2-3 September by the 41st British Division. By rail the Division departed to another front sector near Beauquesne, France.
According to Maj. General O’Ryan the casualties of the 53rd Infantry Brigade were:
“Killed and died of wounds 40 - Shell wounds 126 - Gunshot wounds 150 - Gassed 33 - Total 349.
Forty-seven German soldiers were taken prisoner in this battle. During the battle of Vierstraat Ridge the following material was captured: 63 Machine Guns, 11 Minenwerfers, 1 Field piece (artillery)."
Post war reactions of von Hamann and von Kolaczek
After the war, Maj. Gen. O'Ryan corresponded sometimes with his former enemies; with Lieutenant General von Hamann, who commanded the 8th Prussian Division, and with his Chief of Staff, Major von Kolaczek. With pride O'Ryan quotes the testimonials of his former opponents:
"Referring to the period following August 21st, the date when the 27th Division went into the line in that sector, Major Kolaczek writes: "During these days our numerous night patrols always encountered strong and extremely alert garrisons in the opposing trenches. They did not succeed in bringing in any prisoners."
Referring to the battle of Vierstraat Ridge, Lieutenant General von Hamann writes: "Reports reaching me from all sources, particularly from our artillery observation posts, were that your infantry was unusually energetic in their attack."
Source: Major General John F. O’Ryan: “The Story of the 27th Division” (1921)