SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- On August 31, 1918 the New York National Guardsmen of the 27th Division entered their first big fight.
From August 31 to Sept. 2, 1918, Guardsmen fought the Battle of Vierstaat Ridge. It was part of a larger operation known as the Ypres-Lys Offensive, named after a nearby Belgian city.
This was the first time the National Guardsmen left their trenches and attacked. It was also the first time they came up against the German Army's machine-gun heavy defenses.
At the end of the two-day fight the 53rd Brigade--the half of the division committed to the battle--had taken 542 casualties--including 77 dead.
"The inexperienced troops do not yet know how to utilize terrain in movement, work their way forward during an attack, or choose the correct formation in the event the enemy opens artillery fire," German Lieutenant General Arthur von Hamann, the commander of the Prussian 8th Infantry Division wrote in a report written about the American assault on Sept. 3, 1918.
The New Yorkers had trained with British troops throughout May and June. In July they occupied reserve positions behind British lines. On July 25 the 18,000 men of the 27th Division began moving battalions into the front line.
By July 26, the 106th and 105th Infantry Regiments of the 53rd Brigade had replaced the British 6th Division. The 54th Brigade, composed of the 108th and 107th Regiments, was in reserve.
The 27th Division from New York and the 30 Division, made up of National Guard troops from North Carolina and several southern states, made up the U.S. Army's II Corps, assigned to fight with the British Expeditionary Force as opposed to the other American forces further south in France.
The 50,000 troops were all that were left of ten divisions the British had trained and which British commanders hoped would fight with them.
American General John J. Pershing left the infantrymen, machine gun troops and support troops of these two divisions with the British. But he sent their field artillery to support the American First Army and would send the two divisions no replacements.
Ypres was one of the most fought over pieces of terrain in Europe. The British Army stopped the Germans in front of the city in 1914. Since then five more major battles had been fought around "Wipers" as British soldiers called it.
The 27th Division moved up into the Dickebusch Lake and Scherpenberg sector to replace British troops in front line positions. German observers on a hill known as Mount Kemmel watched the front and called in artillery fire on the Americans.
(A pond at Camp Smith, the New York National Guard training site in Westchester County, is called Dickebusch Lake, as a reference to this Belgian lake where the 27th Division fought.)
The Germans learned the Americans had taken over from the British when the rifle fire from the trenches in front of them increased, according to "Borrowed Soldiers," a 2008 book about the 27th and 30th Divisions.
A German prisoner explained to his American interrogators that veteran troops "only fire individually when they are sure they have a target, whereas new troops are apt to fire more or less constantly at night, whether they have a target."
On August 30, 1918 smoke crept towards the American lines. At first the Americans thought it was a gas attack. Then leaders realized the Germans were hiding something.
Scouts reported that the enemy abandoned Mount Kemel.
The 27th Division was ordered to "have a go at our friends on the ridge" by British Second Army Commander General Herbert Plummer.
Division Commander Maj. Gen. John F. O'Ryan directed the 53rd Brigade to send the 105th and 106th Regiments to attack the German trench line 1,000 yards away. The 105th was on the left side of the attack, which cued off a road running southeast, while the 106th was on the right.
The 30th Division advanced on the 53rd Brigade's left flank. The British 34th division covered the right.
The Germans had indeed pulled back most of their troops, but they left behind machine gun teams dug into positions with interlocking fields of fire to welcome the New York troops.
The machine gun troops were among the elite of the German Army. They were equipped with heavy, water-cooled machine guns firing 500 rounds a minute with a 1.6-mile range. The Germans were expert at camouflaging these guns.
German machine gun fire held the 106th Infantry up for three hours. Eventually American machine guns and British artillery fire cleared the German positions. By 5:30 p.m. the Americans reached their initial objective and dug in for the night.
On Sept. 1, British artillery fired at German positions at 3 a.m. and at 7 a.m. the 106th Infantry kicked off the attack. The 105th Infantry also advanced but ran into German resistance, which drove them back.
The 105th Infantry, known as the "Apple knockers" because the Soldiers were from rural upstate New York, also experienced communications difficulties in the attack.
There were no portable radios in World War I; so advancing units lay telephone wire on the ground behind them. But German artillery fire cut those telephone lines.
The 102nd Signal Battalion, supporting the 53rd Brigade, sent messages back with carrier pigeons, and trained dogs. The carrier pigeons did not do so well but the dogs were surprisingly useful in running back toward the main American lines with messages, according to "Borrowed Soldiers."
"Our new position very heavily shelled, making communications almost impossible," a message from the 105th Infantry's 1st Battalion said. "Request that artillery open fire on the hill opposite our position."
Over in the 106th Infantry Regiment's sector, two battalions were mixed up and not moving. The 106th's commander, Col. William A. Taylor, went forward and determined that the officer in command--Major Harry S. Hildreth--"apparently entirely lost control and seemed at a loss as to what to do."
Hildreth was relieved.
The fight went back and forth for a position known as "The Chinese Trench" before the New Yorkers took and held it for good.
The 53rd Brigade attacked again the next day and took their final objective Sept. 2. The 53rd had lost two officers and 77 enlisted Soldiers killed in the fight, mostly from artillery fire.
In his 1921 book, "The Story of the 27th Division," Major General John O'Ryan, the division commander, pointed out that the Germans had put up a hard fight. The German machine gun teams and snipers stood their ground and made the New York National Guard Soldiers pay a price for ground gained, O'Ryan wrote.
"Except towards the very end, such detachments stuck to their jobs with the greatest courage and spirit of self-sacrifice. Indeed, some of them refused to surrender even when our men were upon them and were killed at their posts," O'Ryan wrote.
He also acknowledged that his Soldiers, in a major battle for the first time, sometimes forgot their training.
"When enemy machine gun nests were located there was a tendency with some of the attacking groups to abandon the deliberate methods for attacking such points, which they know so well, and to resort to the quicker but much more dangerous method of rushing such points of opposition," O'Ryan wrote. "Accordingly, losses were voluntarily incurred by some of our groups which it is believed were avoidable."
In a letter to O'Ryan after the war, von Hamann, the German commander, noted the determination of the New York Soldiers to succeed.
"Reports reaching me from all sources, particularly from our artillery observation posts, were that your infantry was unusually energetic in their attack," von Hamaan wrote.
On Sept. 3, the 27th was pulled out of the line and sent to the rear. Now that the Americans serving with the British had seen their first major fight it was time to begin training again.
Their next mission would spearhead the British assault on German entrenchments which the German Army called the Siegfried Line and which Allies named the Hindenburg Line, for the German Army's commander. It was an attack that the British hoped would doom the German Army.
During the World War I centennial observance, the New York National Guard and New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs will issue press releases noting key dates which impacted New Yorkers, based on information and artifacts provided by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.