Polk County’s darkest days: The Battle of St. Quentin Canal

Published 10:00 pm Friday, April 28, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of a series of articles about Polk County veterans of WWI whose names are listed on the Doughboy Monument in Columbus.

The Battle of St. Quentin Canal, Sept. 29 to Oct. 10, 1918, is matched only by the Battle of Gettysburg when Polk County’s sacrifices in war are considered.

On the first day, Private Jesse T. Lewis of Mill Spring and Private Zeba Wilson of Sunny View lost their lives, and on October 8, Corporal Levi Butler of Tryon was killed in action. All were infantrymen of the 30th “Old Hickory” Division, and their names are three of the seven carved in granite on the Doughboy Monument in Columbus.

The American Bellicourt Monument, Bony, France

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The core of the 24,000-man 30th Division consisted of soldiers, mostly draftees, from North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, three states with connections to our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory.” The division was assembled at Camp Sevier, between Greenville and Taylors, S.C. then deployed to France.

The 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive ended four years of bloody, static war in Europe. In late September the 30th Division, New York’s 27th Division and British and Australian forces, attacked weakened but still deadly German defenders on a four-mile front along an underground section of the St. Quentin Canal, which formed part of the formidable Hindenburg Line. In one of the epic battles of World War I, they breached the heavily fortified defensive barrier by noon on the first day, which was thought to be impossible. The breaking of that enemy position was a stunning and quick victory by the standards of “The Great War” and it was also a decisive one.

30th “Old Hickory” Division Shoulder Patch, WW I

At 4:30 a.m. on the first day of the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, September 29, the 6,000 infantrymen of the North Carolina-based 119th and 120th Regiments attacked. All went well until a dense fog settled on the area, and combined with the smoke of the big guns, made it impossible for the troops to see more than a few feet in front of them, to the point that comrades held hands to avoid being separated, officers lost contact with their men, and success came to depend on the initiative of individual soldiers, many guided only by their compasses.

Still, the battlefield was swept by intense and deadly machine gun fire and was torn by exploding artillery shells. Without hesitation, the men moved forward through the chaos, and by 7:30 a.m. the impossible had been accomplished when the Hindenburg Line was crossed in the vicinity of Bellicourt. Ziba Wilson, and Jesse Lewis of the 120th Infantry lay dead on the battlefield. The breakthrough was completed by October 8 near the village of Montebrehain, where Levi Butler was killed while attacking with the South Carolina-based 118th Infantry. By then, the German High Command was convinced that there was no hope of victory and the Armistice that ended the war came a month later, on Nov. 11, 1918.

In three months of conflict, the 30th Division suffered 1,237 men killed, and 7,178 wounded and missing in action. General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, stated, “The Old Hickory Division ranks among the first divisions of the army in personnel, length of service, losses sustained, distance advanced against the enemy and prisoners captured. But the proudest distinction of the Old Hickory Division is that on September 29, 1918, it broke through the Hindenburg Line, first of all the divisions of the Allied Offensive.”

At the end of their service the division embarked from France and arrived at Charleston on April 2, 1919. The citizen-soldiers then moved by rail to Camp Jackson, S.C. where they were mustered out, and returned to their homes and to civilian life.

– article submitted by Alan Leonard