Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Meuse-Argonne 1918: Alvin C. York

I didn't want to kill a whole heap of Germans nohow. I didn't hate them. But I done it jes the same. I had to. I was cornered. It was either them or me, and I'm a-telling you, I didn't and don't want to die nowhow if I can live.
Corporal Alvin C. York, Second Battalion, 328th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 82nd "All-American" Division.

To rescue Whittlesey and the men of the Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest, I Corps commander Hunter Liggett ordered the 82nd Division to take up positions in the gap between the 1st and 28th Divisions, which was created by the 1st Division's advance of October 4th and 5th. Along with the 28th, which swung westward into the hole, the 82nd attacked on October 7, 1918, gaining around half a mile- 800 meters- of French soil and helping to relieve the New Yorkers and Westerners.

Not taking part in this thrust was the Second Battalion of the 82nd's 328th. Its men were in reserve on October 7, resting in muddy foxholes along a muddy road in rainy weather that kept growing more intense- "it was wet and cold and damp," attested Corporal Alvin C. York. Although the doughboys didn't participate in the war that day, they saw plenty of it. York saw wounded "on stretchers going back to the dressing stations and some of them were lying around moaning and twiching. And oh, my! The dead were all along the road and their mouths were open and their eyes, too, but they couldn't see nothing no more nohow" (Lengel, 267).

He was tall, thin, with red hair and a red mustache. He was from Fentress County, Tennessee- a pious farmer barely able to read or write from one of the United States' poorest counties. There, rifle in hand, he hunted turkeys and participated in shooting competitions, becoming a superb shot. However, the treatment he gave turkeys didn't extend to human beings. Deeply perturbed with taking human life, he requested conscientious objector status, but the War Department denied it. Having joined the army, his battalion commander and others persuaded him that there were times when fighting had to be done, whether one liked it or not. Still, as York plunged bayonets into straw dummies during training, it felt "queer to think I might have to cut up human beings. I still didn't want to kill. I still did feel somehow that it was wrong- terrible wrong for human beings to take each other's life." He also stood out in other ways among the doughboys, too: gambling nor alcohol nor tobacco nor scurrilous language had any charms for him. "I had put all of the drinkin' and fist-fightin' away behind me," he later explained.

I left it back home on the Kentucky line. I didn't have a drink all the time I was in France. I didn't have a fist fight or an argument. I didn't swear or smoke either. I wasn't any better'n any of the other boys. It was jes my way of livin', that was all. 
(Lengel, 251)

On October 5, his unit headed for the front, for the Meuse-Argonne, where the U.S. First Army was struggling against determined German resistance:

We went out on the main road, and lined up and started for the front and the Germans was shelling the road and airoplanes was humming over our heads and we were stumbling over dead horses and dead men and shells were Bursting all around me. Then it was that I could see the Power of God helped man if he would only trust him.
(Lengel, 251)

That was two days ago. Now, on the night of the seventh, York was "wet through and kinder tired." The silhouettes of officers and higher-ranking non-coms soon started moving about in the darkness, rousing the men: come on, you doughboys, time to move out! Their destination was Hill 223, from where the regiment would resume its advance. Using a shaky wooden bridged, they crossed the Aire River. Then, enemy shells started plopping all around them, and clouds started spreading and heading toward the Americans: Gas! The doughboys quickly donned their gasmasks and pressed on, their breath in their masks now more audible: huuuuuuu, wuuuuuuu. Through this poisonous gas they were "slipping and sliding, or falling into holes and tripping over all sorts of things and getting up again and stumbling on for a few yards then going down again" (Lengel, 279). Several slippings and slidings or fallings and trippings later, the doughboys made it to Hill 223, where they waited for a supporting barrage. Time went by... where the Hell is the barrage? Nevertheless, the officers ordered the men to fix bayonets; bombardment or no bombardment, the Americans were going to attack. The advance commenced at 6:10 A.M., October 8, 1918.

Lights started flashing ahead of them. As his platoon was in support, York was horrified of what was happening in front of him: His comrades were brought down in droves by German machine gun fire "like the long grass before the mowing machine at home" (Lengel, 279). The remaining Americans hugged Mother Earth as their officers, trying to urge them on, fell all around them.

That is, until York's platoon sergeant got an idea. He put 17 men, including York, under the command of one Sergeant Bernard Early. Go through that underbrush to left, he ordered over the din of battle, and flank those Heinies with their machine guns. Early and his men snuck through the undergrowth, making it all the way to a wooded promontory, where they discussed what to do next. We should hit the bastards directly in the flank by moving along this ridge, some advised. However, that was not the course of action chosen: The decision- York's and Early's idea- was made to advance even more, turn, and strike the Germans' rear.

Moving down the ridge, two Germans medics- they wore Red Cross armbands- burst from the underbrush in front of the Americans, running as if they were "scared rabbits" (Lengel 280). Surrender! the doughboys implored, and they expended a few of their rounds as well, but the Germans just kept running. The chase was on. It went down the ridge, over a stream, past trees shedding their leaves until it reached a small shack with many Germans around it; "Die Amerikaner Kommen!" the medics yelled as they approached (Mastriano). Their comrades were unarmed, a few in their shirts- officers, runners, orderlies, and stretcher-bearers. Their numbers have yet to be definitively determined, ranging, as Edward G. Lengel notes, from "several dozen" (280) to "about a hundred" (451). All of them capitulated, including their commander, Leutnant Paul Jürgen "Kuno" Vollmer.

Before the coming of the Great War, Vollmer had lived in Chicago for a time before moving back to his native Germany. Also, in his homeland, he had attained the position of assistant postmaster for the city of Ulm, which was located in the state of Württemberg. With the outbreak of hostilities in '14, he had joined the German Army, receiving the Iron Cross 2nd Class that same year. So far he had participated in ten campaigns- the Meuse-Argonne, of course, being the most recent- with 125th and 120th Württemberg Landwehr Infantry regiments. More medals came: the Knights Cross 2nd Class in 1915, followed by the Queen Olga of Württemberg Medal three years later. So did promotions: he had just taken command of the 120th's First Battalion (Mastriano).

Since the beginning of the American offensive on September 26, Vollmer had seen much action. While York was suffering from the rain and cold on October 7, Vollmer was moving his battalion- the last of the 2nd Württemberg Landwehr Division to withdraw- back ten kilometers to a valley in the vicinity of Châtel Chéhéry, where it would act as the reserve. Pulling back took most of the day, the men suffering from the American artillery and that damnable rain. Upon arrival, the Germans started to make defensive postions- trenches, machine gun nests, and the like. Their shovels went deep into the mud, scooping it out...

It was during these preparations that Leutnant Fritz Endriss, who led the battalion's 4th Company, saw something that worried him. He sent one of his platoon leaders, Leutnant Karl Kübler, to convey his concern to Vollmer. "I regard our situation as very dangerous,"  Kübler told the battalion commander as it rained all around them, "for the Americans could easily pass through the gaps in the sector of the 2nd Machine Gun Company and gain our rear" (Mastriano). Make contact with 2nd Company then, Vollmer ordered. Kübler tried, and failed. So he sent Vollmer a message: "I will, on my own responsibility, occupy Hill 2 with part of 4th Company." Vollmer, with perhaps a bit of irritation, replied, "You will hold the position to which you have been assigned" (Mastriano).

However, the Germans would not rely solely on defense. Indeed, they were to counterattack at 10:30 tomorrow morning, the eighth. General Max von Gallwitz- the commander of the namesake German Army Group Von Gallwitz, which controlled the portion of the Western Front from Metz to the Meuse-Argonne- ordered the 125th Württemberg Landwehr Infantry Regiment (it was also a part of the 2nd Division) to recapture Schöne Aussicht (Pleasant View or Hill 180) with the support of the 212th Reserve Infantry Regiment, 45th Prussian Reserve Division and 120th, aided by the 45th Division's 210th, to retake Castle Hill (Hill 223). Vollmer's battalion would be at a forefront of the attack (Mastriano).

Then the Germans started to get cold feet. At 4:50 P.M. on October 7, Rittmeister von Sick, the commander of the 120th's Third Battalion, sent a message through a carrier pigeon:

Just now a report came from my right flank that the enemy is pushing through there and has taken the greater part of 12th Company during hand to hand combat, have sent the 7th Company to counter this, but its strength is just 1 platoon. Given the circumstances I have told 1st Lieutenant Vollmer (1/120) he should delay assault on Schlossberg [Hill 223], so that the enemy will not be able to break through at his rear. My 10th Company also completely wiped out. Enemy continues to attack repeatedly

Exactly two hours later, he released another pigeon:

Situation still threatening, 6th Company, which was to advance its right flank at the North-South road to counterattack is left hanging unsecured. Not currently possible to link up with 122nd. Therefore consider Vollmer's Battalion still to be urgently needed. From knowledge of local conditions I allow myself to urgently advise giving up the assault on Schlossberg in order to maintain secure hold on main line of resistance. Repeated enemy attacks, with forces far superior to the weak remnants of the committed companies, hence the need for reserves. The company commanders report their troops at the end of their strength; I must concur, nearly all leaders and noncommissioned officers are wounded. Average strength of companies is 12 - 15 men, thus very thin crews.
(Sergeant York Project Team The German Soldier Accounts, 31)

Yet according to the records at the Reichsarchiv, it seems the attack was still going to happen.

Of course, the Americans beat them to it. As he was watching his men slaughtering York's battalion, Vollmer was approached by Leutnant Karl Glass, his adjutant. Please don't let this be another American penetration, he thought. Sir, Glass reported, more men of the 210th have arrived at your command post. It was 9:30 A.M. Come, Vollmer said; let us meet its commander. We've only got an hour before we are to assail the enemy.

Arriving at the shack that was his command post, Vollmer was dismayed by what he saw: 70 men of the 210th, having put their Mauser rifles aside, were eating breakfast. You all are unready, rebuked Vollmer. Don't you know that we are going to attack soon? "We hiked all night," answered the Prussians' spokesmen, "and first of all we need something to eat" (Mastriano). Vollmer didn't reply immediately. He turned to his adjutant: Glass, return to the front lines. Then he brought his attention back to the Prussians: Well hurry up then! With that, he started walking back to the First Battalion.

"Die Amerikaner Kommen!" Vollmer looked back. To his right, some of the Prussians threw their guns away and raise their hands, crying "Kamerad," the German cry of surrender. Vollmer, perplexed, took out his Luger from its holster. Pick up your rifles, damn you! he demanded. To his back came Early's detachment. Mistakenly thinking it was a large-scale attack, the rest of the Prussians joined in the chorus of "Kamerad." Even Vollmer joined in, a prisoner of Corporal York. Soon after, Glass came back with news for the battalion commander that he saw some Americans (Early's men) moving on the ridge behind the command post:

I rushed up to him and had hardly started to make my report when I was suddenly surrounded by a number of Americans. Not until then did I see that Lieutenant Vollmer had been captured. I am not definite whether there were still more prisoners, nor how many Americans there were present. On the other hand, I still have in my mind a fairly clear picture of the American soldier in charge; it was he who kept his pistol aimed at me. He was a large and strong man with red mustache, broad features and, I believe, freckle-faced.
(Sergeant York Project Team, 6)

Undoubtedly that man was Corporal York. All of these Germans were under the illusion that they were victims of a huge American ambush (Mastriano).

High on Humser Hill, the 125th's Fourth and Sixth companies watched like hawks what was going on in the valley below. From there the men, through waving their arms, told their comrades to lie down. Line up all these Heinies, Sergeant Early ordered his men. Taka-taka-taka! The Germans above had started firing their machine guns! Early, hit by six bullets, then fell to the ground, wounded. York's "best pal," Corporal Murray Savage, fell too, his olive-drab uniform torn by the multitude of bullets that had entered his body, but unlike Early he died. Another corporal and six privates also became casualties. So did many prisoners- victims of friendly fire. The remainder of them desperately flapped their arms, crying "Don't shoot — there are Germans here!" (Mastriano). All the while the machine gunners shouted, Hit the dirt! The commander of Sixth Company, Leutnant Paul Adolph August Lipp, heard his comrades' plea. Aim carefully, men, he ordered. Also, riflemen, come up to the firing line.

The Americans, those eight who were alive and unwounded, hunkered down behind whatever refuge from the enemy bullets they could find. York found for shelter a slope not far behind Vollmer's shack- where he just so happened to be when the machine gun fire erupted. It was a stroke of good fortune he was right there. The Germans on Humser Hill were only 25 yards away from him. If they wanted to have a look at York and his comrades they would have to raise their heads above their trenches. Since he was not with the rest of them, York was the sole doughboy to exploit this topographical godsend (Lengel, 280). Thus, he laid down, later switching to having one knee up, and started firing his rifle.

The movie Sergeant York (1941) had York, played by actor Gary Cooper, use Model 1903 Springfield bolt action rifle. In reality, he used the 30-06 (pronounced "thirty ought six"; it was a .30 caliber cartridge whose use was sanctioned in 1906) Model 1917 Enfield rifle, which equipped the vast majority of the divisions of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). When the United States had entered the Great War back in 1917, the manufacturers of the Springfield couldn't keep up with the fast pace that the Army's numbers were swelling. How to arm these citizen-soldiers, draftees and volunteers alike? U.S. authorities asked themselves. Fortunately, the civilian manufacturers of Remington, Remington Eddystone, and Winchester had already been making in vast quantities a .303 caliber Pattern 1914 Enfield for the British Army. Anything coming out of those factories could be in the hands of the doughboys sooner than it would take for other American industries to switch from whatever they had been making previously to the '03. So the P14 was modified to fit the 30-06 and in appearance, resulting in the M17. Measuring 46 inches in length as a whole and 26 inches for the barrel, the M17 was better than the Springfield: Its was lighter by .7lbs and the bolt handle's proximity to the trigger was closer, allowing it to have a higher rate of fire (Henry, 33).

York made these technical virtues evident. They're Turkies... or targets, York thought. Jes Turkies or targets. And I'm a-telling you, Alvin York, they aren't people! When a head with a coal-scuttle helmet on it raised itself above the entrenchments, Pock! He "jes teched him off" (Lengel, 280). Another German rose to have a look: Pock! The now lifeless head fell back down, out of York's sight. Another followed suit... then another... and another. All of them were killed by the Tennessean.

By now York had expended many of his five-round clips, the casing scattered all around him among the sea of fallen leaves. His rifle seemed to be on fire; he could barely hold it. Meanwhile, on the German side, Leutnant Endriss realized his superior's dire position. He knew he needed to act, and to act fast. He went "over the top" of his trench followed by five of his men, bayonets attached to their rifles. Knowing that his rifle wasn't fast enough to kill all of the charging Germans, he drew out his Colt Model 1911 semi-automatic pistol, which held a seven-round magazine of .45in bullets (thus its nickname: "45 automatic") and many NCOs carried in addition to their rifles (Henry, 35). "I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on," York attested.

That's the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don't want the front ones to know we're getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course, I hadn't time to think of that. I guess I jes naturally did it. I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me.
(Lengel, 281)

Consequently, Endriss was the last man to be hit, and, blood oozing from his body, he fell, howling in pain, wounded in the abdomen (Mastriano; Sergeant York Project Team- Vollmer's and Glass's statements). With all six of them down, York resumed firing his rifle.

When the machine guns started firing on the Americans and their prisoners, instinct overcame conscience for York. Now his conscience was reentering his mind. He was not killing turkeys any more but human beings. "Give up and come on down," he started to yell from time to time before he went back to shooting (Lengel, 281). For some reason, the Germans didn't comply.

Seeing that a lot of Germans had died in the bayonet charge and knowing that his friend Endriss was in desperate need of first aid, Vollmer started creeping up toward York.

"English?" he shouted amidst the cacophony of war.

"No, not English," York replied.



"Good Lord!... If you won't shoot any more I will make them give up."

"Well, all right. I will treat you like a man" (Lengel, 281).

Vollmer took out a whistle and blew it. Lipp, he shouted, I order you to lay down your arms and surrender. Lipp obeyed, and he and his men walked down Humser Hill unarmed, joining the others already in captivity. Or were they? One of the new prisoners took out a grenade he had hidden and threw it at York: BLAM! York, unharmed, shot the German.

Gradually, the other Americans left the shelter of trees and undergrowth. All of them were uncomfortable about guarding so many enemy prisoners when they were so few. Having a feeling there weren't that many of them, Vollmer asked York, How many men are with you? I have "a-plenty," the corporal answered in his southern accent (Lengel, 282). He had his men gather the prisoners in a column and commanded the Germans to carry the six wounded doughboys. The officers were placed in front of this column, Vollmer at the head with York immediately to his rear, his .45 automatic aimed at the German officer's back. The whole group commenced marching back to the American lines.
Sergeant Alvin C. York, 328th Infantry, who with aid of 17 men, captured 132 German prisoners; shows hill on which raid took place [October 8, 1918]. Argonne Forest, near Cornay, France., 02/07/1919
On the march Vollmer advised York to move down a gully, knowing full well that it was teeming with Germans. York saw right through him, and chose to return the way he and the rest of Early's detachment came. In front of them was Kübler's platoon. "Things did not look right to me," Kübler would later attest;

placing Warrant Officer Haegle in charge of my shock troop, I left with two men to reconnoiter the situation. We were barely 100 meters away from my shock troop, when, all of a sudden, we found ourselves surrounded by American soldiers with their fixed bayonets trained on us. The enemy challenged us to surrender. Realizing that resistance was of no avail, I accepted the bitter fate.
(Sergeant York Project Team, 9)

Leutnant Thoma, the commander of the 7th Bavarian Mineur Company whom Vollmer had ordered at eight that morning to fill that wide gap, had not heard back from the platoon leader he ordered to carry out that command, although he "heard the sound of lively rifle fire from the direction of the platoon." ("During the night of 7-8 October," Thoma noted in 1929, "two platoons of my company, including myself, were placed at the disposal of the 120th Wuerttemberg Landwehr Infantry and assigned to the command of First Lieutenant (Reserve) Vollmer.") So he decided to see for himself if that platoon had followed his instructions. "Suddenly a call [in German] rang from my right: 'Unbuckle everything.'" With some of his men he had gathered, Thoma rushed towards the sound, shouting "Don't remove your belts."

We advanced with fixed bayonets. Suddenly ["after about 100 meters," he wrote in an earlier statement] we were face to face with some Americans and their German prisoners; I recognized only several men of my company and the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Vollmer.

York drove his pistol into Vollmer's back: Tell 'em to surrender.

"I will not let myself get captured," Thoma shouted to Vollmer.

"It is useless," Vollmer answered, persuaded by York's pistol, "we are surrounded. I will take responsibility."

Having realized that "several" Americans were behind him, Thoma and his men complied (Mastriano; Sergeant York Project Team- both Thoma's testimonies to the Reichsarchiv in 1929 and to the Bavarian military in 1919). There was one who didn't, however. York had Vollmer demand his surrender twice. The soldier refused both times, so York had to kill him (Sergeant York Project Team Sergeant York "Skeyhill" Account & Patrol Affidavits, 4-5). That victim of his would haunt him for the rest of his life (Lengel, 282).

Lieutenant Joseph A. Woods, the Second Battalion's adjutant, thought it was a counterattack. He sounded the alarm, droves of doughboys preparing to resist. Wait a minute... these Krauts are unarmed. A doughboy came up to Woods: "Corporal York reports with prisoners, sir."

"How many prisoners have you, Corporal?" asked the American officer.

"Honest Lieutenant, I don't know."

"Take them back to Châtel Chéhéry, and I will count them as they go by" (Mastriano). The total was amazing.

York was told to report to the headquarters of the 164th Brigade, to which the 328th belonged. "Well, York," Brigadier General Julian Lindsey, the 164th's commanding officer, said, "I hear you have captured the whole damned German army."

No, York humbly replied, I only brought in 132 of the enemy (Lengel, 282). In addition, he had killed 32 Germans and captured 35 of their machine guns (Lengel, 6). For his conduct on October 8, 1918, York would receive the Medal of Honor.

The next day, York returned to the valley where he had "teched" all those Germans off, accompanied by two stretcher-bearers. He wanted to see if he could save some wounded. His captain, who gave permission for this humanitarian endeavor, knew that there were only lifeless, bloated German and American bodies. However, he also knew that York had to deal with demons, so he permitted the corporal to go ahead with it (Lengel, 295).

"Everything," York would later recall, had been "destroyed, torned up, killed- trees, grass, men." He looked and looked for any German or American still alive, but to no avail. "I jes couldn't help thinking of the boys that only the day before was alive and like me," he would remember.

Dymowski- dead. Weiler- dead. Waring- dead. Wins- dead. Swanson- dead. Corporal Murray Savage, my best pal, dead. Oh my, it seemed so unbelievable. I would never see them again. I would never share the same blanket with Corporal Savage. We'd never read the Bible together again. We would never talk about our faith and pray to our God. I was mussed up inside worser than I had ever been. I'm a-telling you when you lose your best buddie and you know you ain't never going to see him again, you sorter know how terrible cruel war is.

He could only pray:

I prayed for the Greeks and Italians and the Poles and the Jews and the others. I done prayed for the Germans too. They were all brother men of mine. Maybe their religion was different, but I reckon we all believed in the same God and I wanted to pray for all of them.

(Lengel 295-296)

Selected Sources

Henry, Mark. The US Army of World War I. Osprey Publishing, 2003. Print.

Lengel, Edward G. To Conquer Hell: the Meuse-Argonne, 1918. 1st ed. New York: H. Holt, 2008. Print. 

Mastriano, Douglas. “Alvin York and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.” Sept. 2006. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.

Sergeant York Project Team. “The German Soldier Accounts.” 2010. Online at

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