109th Infantry helped win World War I
Called the “Iron Division” by none other than General John J. Pershing himself, the contributions of Pennsylvania’s 28th Division helped end World War I.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ceased fighting during World War I. The Pennsylvania Guard mobilized to fight in that war Sunday, July 15, 1917, “to hear the reading of a proclamation by President (Woodrow) Wilson and be mustered into the Federal service,” according to an April 29, 1919, Pittsburgh Dispatch story about the heroics of the 28th, which is part of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
Among the units in the 28th is Scranton’s 109th Infantry, which was first organized in 1877 as the Scranton City Guards.
Initially assigned to guard railroads, bridges and the like throughout the state, the 28th division “moved to Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia, from Aug. 6 to Sept. 15, 1917,” The Pittsburgh Dispatch reported. “There, the division was reorganized to conform to the new army standard, and the companies were enlarged by drafts of selected men.”
The 28th Division troops embarked from New York in April 1918 and reached France on May 18, according to The Pittsburgh Dispatch. There, they were paired with British soldiers for training and instruction.
By mid-june, infantry regiments arrived “a few miles northwest of Paris and the camps extended over a wide stretch of territory,” The Pittsburgh Dispatch reported. “This arrangement kept the 28th Infantry within sound of the guns at the battlefront, their line being back of the French troops holding the Marne.”
Though the soldiers were 10 to 14 miles from the front lines, there wasn’t much to do at first. Things were so quiet, in fact, the men of the 109th planned a July 4 celebration complete with games, music and special food.
As July 4, 1918, dawned, however, the men were woken up and given orders to march from camp. Finding no enemy troops, the soldiers returned to camp that night “footsore … without getting any glimpse of the enemy,” The Pittsburgh Dispatch reported.
Two days later, though, all regiments began moving closer to the front lines. On July 13, the 109th arrived in Monthurel. They could see the glow from the shelling at the nearby town of Marne, so named for the river flowing through it.
“Shortly before midnight, the French batteries opened a terrific attack on the Germans to interfere with the enemy formation,” according to The Pittsburgh Dispatch.
As Germans started across the river, led by Prussian troops, “the Keystone men held their ground, despite that it was their first experience under fire, as the Kaiser’s hordes swarmed up the slope toward their positions,” the newspaper reported. “Many of our lads performed heroic stunts and surprised members of the French regiments and struck terror to the Germans.”
A glitch in communications, however, left just four Pennsylvania companies — two from the 109th and two from the 110th, based in Greene County — alone on the field east of Chateau-thierry. Undeterred, the Pennsylvania soldiers resorted to hand-tohand combat with German soldiers and fought their way back to their division.
“This is the reason, as so many soldier letters related last summer, that these companies were ‘cut to pieces’ and is the reason why L and M companies of the 109th and B and C companies of the 110th figured so largely for a time in the casualty lists sent out by the War Department,” according to The Pittsburgh Dispatch. “The detachments got back to their regimental lines after an absence of more than 36 hours, during which the fighting had been almost continuous.”
Pershing visited the soldiers of the 28th Division after that battle, calling them “men of iron” and his “Iron Division,” according to a history on the Pennsylvania National Guard website.
After a few days’ rest, and the addition of more soldiers to their ranks, the 109th and 110th were ordered to march northeast to find the enemy, The Pittsburgh Dispatch reported.
“One of the greatest achievements of the drive from the Marne to the Vesle (rivers) was the capture of Grimpettes woods by the 109th and the 110th on July 30,” according to the newspaper. “It was taken followed repeated repulses of infantry charges, aided by artillery fire. Burial parties laid away more than 400 German bodies in Grimpettes. The Pennsylvanians’ losses were comparatively small.”
From there, soldiers in the 28th captured Fismes, “one of the largest German munition depots on the Soissons-rheims sector,” The Pittsburgh Dispatch reported. “Across the narrow river was the village of Fismette, the capture of which furnished another glorious page to Pennsylvania’s military history.”
After the Armistice, the 28th remained in Belgium until January 1919. They arrived back in Northeast Pennsylvania on May 18, 1919.
The 28th Division’s 109th history stretches back to 1747, when it was organized by none other than Benjamin Franklin. Scranton’s 109th formed in 1775 and has “participated in every war the Unites States has fought, starting with the American Revolution,” according to a Scranton Times article about its history.
The 28th earned another nickname while fighting in World War II. The Germans called them the “Bloody Bucket Division” for the red Keystone patch they wore, according to an Aug. 26, 1950, Scranton Times article.
ERIN L. NISSLEY is an assistant metro editor for The TimesTribune. She’s lived in the area for more than a decade.
Before heading off to Europe to fight in World War I, the 13th Regiment, later to be called the 109th Infantry, served along the U.s.-mexican border. This image shows members of the regiment returning home to Scranton from the border in March 1917.