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WWI trenches tested New York's 'Fighting 69th' in 1918

By Col. Richard Goldenberg | New York National Guard | March 8, 2018

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The first weeks of WWI combat service for the New York National Guard's 69th Infantry Regiment provided cause for both celebration and sorrow for the regiment's Irish heritage around St. Patrick's Day in 1918.


March 7, 1918, was the day the New York National Guardsmen of the 69th Infantry Regiment, New York City's "Fighting 69th," experienced their first major combat loss.

A German artillery barrage landed directly on a dugout position of the regiment's 2nd Battalion, killing 21 Soldiers and launching a frantic rescue effort to recover survivors buried 40 feet below ground.

The regiment had been renamed the 165th Infantry Regiment and was part of the Army's 42nd Infantry "Rainbow" Division. The regiment was deployed to the Lunneville sector of the front to gain combat experience. The dugout was in a wood known to the local French residents as the Rouge Bouquet.

Those first weeks of combat service provided cause for both celebration and sorrow for the regiment's Irish heritage on St. Patrick's Day in 1918.

The Irish regiment, along with other infantry forces of the Rainbow Division, were serving in the line alongside French divisions of the French VII Corps throughout March 1918 in order to gain practical experience before the division would take command of its own sector later in the spring.

The 165th Infantry had been in the trenches of Lunneville since Feb. 28. After more than a week of missions, the regiment's 1st Battalion, led by Maj. William Donovan, rotated to the rear and the 2nd Battalion, commanded by Maj. William Stacom, entered the line March 7.

The initial week had been a tremendous experience for the New York Soldiers, recalled regimental chaplain the Rev. Francis Duffy in his 1919 autobiography "Father Duffy's Story."

"The trenches at last!" he recorded in his diary on March 1, 1918. "We have all read descriptions of them and so had our preconceived notions. The novelty is that we are in a thick woods."

Duffy was referring to the Rouge Bouquet, where the battalions would rotate forces to conduct raids, patrols and master the tactics and techniques of trench warfare on the Western Front.

"Their main sport is going out on patrols by night or day to scout through "No Man's Land," to cut wires, and stir things up generally," Duffy wrote of the tactical operations. "With our artillery throwing over shells from the rear and our impatient infantry prodding the enemy, the sector will not be long a quiet one."

Duffy's concern was prescient. German forces provided a violent welcome for the 2nd Battalion once they entered the trenches on March 7.

"At about 3:20 p.m. the enemy launched a barrage of shells in the 2nd Battalion's position for about an hour," wrote Richard Demeter in his 2002 history of "The Fighting 69th." With the majority of troops below ground in hardened dugouts for protection, tragedy struck when a German shell landed on and collapsed the dugout for 1st Lt. John Norman, a regular Army officer and his two dozen Soldiers of 1st Platoon.

The dugout was some 40 feet below ground, with timbers to protect the Soldiers and numerous turns down a stairwell to the entrance.

"Tons of earth and stone cascaded," recalled Pvt. Alf Helmer a native of Norway and one of the few survivors of the barrage, explained in the 2008 Stephen Harris book "Duffy's War." "I remember only the crash. Thoughts ceased. I only know that I found myself in the doorway of the forward entrance, hands extended over my head."

Maj. William Donovan, commander of the regiment's 1st Battalion, was visiting the 2nd Battalion command post after the relief in place when the barrage struck. Allowing Stacom to continue his defensive preparations in case of a German attack, Donovan volunteered to make an assessment and assist in the rescue efforts of the imperiled 1st Platoon.

Initial efforts were able to recover seven Soldiers, two alive and five dead. Donovan and a rescue team could still hear other survivors, including Lt. Norman, from the crater of earth and timber.

Not all of the New York Soldiers perished in the initial blast that collapsed the dugout, Helmer would later recall in the Harris book account. Half the platoon had survived, but with little space for air and tons of earth and debris, Helmer expected everyone to die, using his own helmet to scoop away dirt and create space to breathe.

"Choking dust and gas stench filled the suffocating darkness," Helmer's son recalled for an interview for the Harris book. "I gave myself to prayer and making my peace with God, I was no longer afraid."

Under intense German artillery fire, including a gas attack, the frantic efforts to dig into the crater and save their fellow Soldiers continued, assisted by the regiment's engineers of the pioneer platoon. Led by one of the estimated 60-80 Jewish Soldiers serving in the Irish regiment, Sgt. Abram Blaustein continued rescue efforts.

"The pioneers were called out to try to rescue these men," recalled Al Ettinger in his account to his son in the 1992 book "A Doughboy with the Fighting 69th."

"All night long we labored. Two lieutenants gave general direction but it was Abe Blaustein who really took charge and led by example. The men worked in relays, but Blaustein always took the most dangerous position," Ettinger said.

For his heroic actions, Blaustein received the French Croix de Guerre and the moniker "Blaustein of the Irish."

Donovan also received the Croix de Guerre for his actions in leading rescue efforts under fire.

The trauma of the loss and the determination to act even touched the survivors. Pvt. Helmer, once rescued, moved on to the medical aid station and the battalion command post to report on the tragedy. Then, according to Harris in "Duffy's War," he requested permission to return to the site to assist with rescue efforts.

As rescue efforts the following morning became too dangerous under the German artillery barrage, and no further sounds coming from the dugout, it was decided to halt work and leave the remaining 14 Soldiers and 1st Lt. Norman where they were buried. The regiment placed a marker and moved on.

Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, present at the scene and a famous poet assigned to the regimental Intelligence Section, penned an account of loss for the 21 Soldiers in a poem simply titled "Rouge Bouquet."

"On St. Patrick's Day that year (1918)," Demeter wrote, "The 165th Infantry celebrated as the Old 69th had always done. Father Duffy said mass for each of the three battalions, the afternoon was given over to sport and the evening to music and entertainment."

But mass for the Irish in 1918 was a special observance as Duffy read the Kilmer poem to the assembled troops to honor their recently fallen friends.

"Rouge Bouquet" includes this first stanza, written in time to the sound of Taps played in honor of the fallen Soldiers:

In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet

There is a new-made grave today,

Built by never a spade nor pick

Yet covered with earth ten meters thick.

There lie many fighting men,

Dead in their youthful prime,

Never to laugh nor love again

Nor taste the Summertime.

For death came flying through the air

And stopped his flight at the dugout stair,

Touched his prey and left them there,

Clay to clay.

He hid their bodies stealthily

In the soil of the land they fought to free

And fled away.

Now over the grave abrupt and clear

Three volleys ring:

And perhaps their brave spirits hear

The bugles sing:

"Go to sleep!

Go to sleep!

Slumber well where the shell screamed and fell.

Let your rifles rest on the muddy floor,

You will not need them anymore.

Danger's past;

Now at last,

Go to sleep."

Three days later, March 20, 1918, the Irish launched a surprise attack against the German trenches, with a green banner marked with a golden harp and the Irish motto, "Erin Go Bragh," roughly Ireland Forever, attached to a Soldier's bayonet as he went over the top. It would be further embroidered with the name Rouge Bouquet and carried into battle for the remainder of the war.

The Irish regiment, like the rest of the 42nd Rainbow Division, had learned its combat lessons and would carry them through their battles ahead, notes New York State Military History Director Courtney Burns. Soldiers learned the skills to survive and succeed at Lunneville, mourn their losses of the Rouge Bouquet and move forward to their mission.

The entire division would form and take its full place in the line in its own sector in Baccarat, France, on April 1 and confront the final German offensive of the war. In the summer of 1918 the Rainbow would go on the offensive, with the 165th Infantry often in the lead.

"Thrown into the trenches in late February 1918, the 165th (Old 69th) successfully held the line at Rouge Bouquet, Baccarat and Champagne against the great German Spring Offensive," Burns said. "In the Aisne-Marne and Meuse-Argonne Allied offensives of the summer and fall, the 165th excelled at small unit tactics and movement, often leading the advance to seize and control German-held territory and positions."