Author Topic: The US 28th & 32nd Divisions House-to-House Combat Fismette, France –100 years  (Read 1222 times)

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Offline ArizonaTank

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Battle of Fismes and Fismette 2 Aug - 27th August, 1918

During three weeks in August, 1918, the US 32nd and 28th Divisions fought a house-to-house battle in the village of Fismes, and its attached hamlet of Fismette.  The towns were held by crack troops from the German 4th Guards Division, using the Vesle river to anchor the defense.  The Americans initally pushed the Germans out...but the battle ended as German storm troops with flamethrower detachments launched a fierce counter attack on August 27th.  This pushed the Americans back over the river and out of Fismette. Most of the US troops defending Fismette were captured (the Germans reported 250 US troops captured) or killed.

One of the best descriptions of this fight is in Hervy Allen's war diary, “Toward the Flame”.  In fact “Toward the Flame” is often cited as one of the best WWI diaries. Allen was an infantry officer in the 28th Division and was wounded at Fismette.  Thanks to the internet archive, a very nice digital copy is available for free at:
https://archive.org/details/towardflamewardi00herv?q=fismette

The 28th and 32nd Divisions

Both US divisions in the fight were National Guard divisions.

The 28th Division was made up of men mostly from Pennsylvania.  The division is the oldest division sized unit in the US Army. The division symbol was (and is) a red keystone, the symbol of the State of Pennsylvania.  To the Germans, the keystone looked like a red, “bloody bucket,” and that name stuck (the division is also known as the “Iron Division”). A nice summary of the 28th in WWI is at:
https://books.google.com/books?id=IIizAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=pennsylvania+at+war&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiuyYuc8_vcAhUCYKwKHaJeAaQQ6AEIMzAC#v=onepage&q=pennsylvania%20at%20war&f=false

The 32nd Division was made of National Guardsmen from Michigan and Wisconsin. One of the division's battalions had roots going back to the Civil War “Iron Brigade.” The 32nd fought in WWII but was de-activated during the Cold War.  A summary of the 32nd in WWI is at:
https://books.google.com/books?id=kMcLAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=32nd+division&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi-h_bO8_vcAhUBKqwKHV8tBYMQ6AEIMTAB#v=onepage&q=32nd%20division&f=false

The Google Street View link below, shows the main bridge in Fismes over the Vesle.  The original bridge was blown by the Germans during their retreat.  US troops crossing over to Fismette during the battle used makeshift bridges.  After the war, as a memorial to the 28th Division, the State of Pennsylvania rebuilt the bridge you can see in the street view link. This view is from the Fismes side, looking north toward to where the German defenses were in Fismette.
https://www.google.com/maps/@49.3123174,3.6796448,3a,68.5y,354.67h,91.52t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sFE6N1KpNgzVTnZA9iyhidA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

Fight on the Vesle

The last nine months of WW1 on the Western Front were not dominated by trench warfare.  Tanks and assault tactics such as the German Strossturppen had opened the entire front up.  For the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), the war was not like what had come before. The troops still dug in, and fought from prepared defenses, but in many sectors, the battle was fluid. Many battles were fought over open ground.

Despite the more fluid battlefields, street-to-street, house-to-house fighting like that seen 25 years later in WWII, was not common.  One of these exceptions was the battle of Fismes, and it's smaller attached hamlet, Fismette. 

At the end of July, 1918, the Germans in the Marne sector were retreating north in the face a massive French and American counter-offensive. The retreating Germans gave up most of the ground they had gained earlier in the year. The retreat was disciplined, and the Germans eventually established a defensive line on the north bank of the Vesle river.

One of the main German positions on the Vesle defensive line was the town of Fismes on the south bank of the river, and it's attached hamlet, Fismette on the north bank. The German 4th Guards Division who held the position were considered to be “first rate troops.”  The town itself was fairly intact, and a ridge north of Fismette offered good defensive fields of fire. 

On August 2nd, the 32nd Division, advancing from the south, started the difficult task of pushing the Germans out of the town.  In five days of hard fighting, the 32nd endured German gas and artillery attacks, and brutal street fighting.  Still, in the face of this solid defense, the 32nd managed to push the Germans out of Fismes on the southern bank, and even get patrols over to the the north bank in Fismette.

Captain Paul Schmidt, Co. C. 127th Infantry, wrote in 1919
...a terrific conflict was being waged between the 2nd. and 3rd. Battalions (of the 167th infantry, part of the 32nd Division) and the Germans, who were fighting in a hand-to-hand struggle in the same block in the city. Machine guns were placed along the streets in the most advantageous positions behind barricades of the walls of the ruined buildings. Step by step our troops pushed forward in the face of machine gun fire that swept the streets from curb to curb ; but undaunted, the plucky fighters of the 2nd. and 3rd. Battalions fought on against great odds, until they had driven the enemy to the bank of the Vesle river. From our position, we had a panoramic view of both sides of the river and the sloping hills on the other side of the Vesle north of Fismette. We could see the Germans retreating across the river into Fismette and up the hills on the opposite side, keeping up a heavy fire with both artillery and machine guns, in their retreat. After crossing the river, the Germans blew up the bridges and filled the river with wire entanglements.

But the cost of taking Fismes was high.  The 32nd Division was in shambles after this fight, and could not push on.  The lead regiment at full strength should have had 3700 men, but was now down to 500 effective troops.

It was now the 28th's turn. On August 6th, the men from Pennsylvania, replaced the 32nd  and began the push to get over the river into Fismette. The 28th began slow street by street, house by house battle. The 28th was under constant fire from masked machine guns, snipers and harassing gas and artillery attacks.  At night, groups of German assault troops would move down the streets, attacking the 28th positions with bundled “potato mashers.”

For two weeks, the 28th gradually pushed the Germans out of Fismette, finally taking the hamlet on August 22nd. But on August 27, the Germans who still held the heights north of Fismette, struck back. In the course of one night, German storm troopers and flamethrowers finally took Fismette back, capuring or killing most of the 28th's defenders. Eventually, the Germans retreated in mid-September, giving up the town that they had fought so hard to take back.

 



« Last Edit: December 06, 2018, 11:01:09 PM by ArizonaTank »
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Rated as the 2nd most valuable player of all time by Bill James.

Offline ArizonaTank

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Some pics

A US helmet with the 28th Division, "Bloody Bucket" painted on the side.  The 28th was a National Guard division from Pennsylvania, so the symbol is actually the "Pennsylvania Key Stone." Many US divisions had their troops paint their division symbols on their helmets. Most helmets I have seen have the symbol painted on the front. But all the 28th Division helmets I have seen have the symbol on the side...kind of like a shoulder patch.



The 32nd Division symbol...Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard.



Main street in Fismes, just after the battle.  This photo taken from a book scan of the 110th Infantry Regiment history, published in 1920. Just after the war, many units published histories.  Many of these are available online through Google books, or the Internet Archive (archive.org).



US Troops in Fismes, days after the Armistice (November, 1918). This photo from the US National Archives.  NARA has many documents, pictures and videos of WWI online.



« Last Edit: August 22, 2018, 11:03:32 PM by ArizonaTank »
Honus Wagner
"The Flying Dutchman"
Shortstop: Pittsburgh Pirates 1900-1917
Rated as the 2nd most valuable player of all time by Bill James.