109th In­fantry helped win World War I

The Times-Tribune - - LOCAL HISTORY - ERIN NISSLEY Con­tact the writer: lo­cal­his­tory@timessham­rock.com

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.

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