Mortimer McKinley Austin, 1899–October 14, 1918

Madeleine Farm, near where McKinley died in October 1918. Photo taken by Aida Austin when she visited France in 1923.

Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France, October 12–17, 1918
McKinley’s outfit arrived in the vicinity of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon on October 12. They suffered casualties from the heavy shelling of enemy guns the next day. That evening the 11th Infantry took up a position around Ferme de la Madeleine.

At the Battle of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon (October 14–17), the Americans launched a series of costly frontal assaults that finally broke through the main German defences of the Hindenburg Line.

The enemy waiting until the forward movement is commenced, throws down a terrific barrage upon our front so that the division going ‘over the top’ at daylight (October 14th) with the 9th Brigade (60th and 61st Infantry) on the right, and the 10th brigade, 6th and 11th Infantry on the left, is immediately plunged into a perfect storm of shell fire which inflicts heavy casualties in its ranks at the very outset of the advance.—Moss and Howland, p. 287.

McKinley is Hit
It was our [11th Infantry’s] first day in the Argonne drive and we went over at 8 the morning of the 14th of October. We hadn’t gone far when we were held up by the German machine guns.

They [Germans] were firing on us from three different directions and there wasn’t enough of the boys left to advance farther so we were forced to stop and dig in.

The Corporal of his squad being a casualty, [I] made [McKinley] Austin as I knew him, Squad leader and when we reached the hill which was Madelaine Farm, the German’s made it so hot for us we could not advance further. So I directed him to put his gun into action on the west of the hill.

Then I went on seeing the other gun put into action which was even more perilous and came back. Seeing him on the side of the hill I asked him if he had the gun in action. He said, no. He came back for 
a shovel. I paid no more attention to him then and went on to report to Capt. Dashiell who was killed later.—Sgt. John Popp letter.

At Madelaine Farm after this company had gained its first objective, [Mac] was put in command of the 6th squad (acting as corporal).

In order to consolidate the position and to prevent a successful German counter-attack, [Mac] took his machine gun and his squad of men forward to a shell hole.

It was a dangerous mission for artillery and machine gun fire was heavy. Finding the hole not deep enough to provide cover for the gun and all the men, he returned to the trench and obtained a shovel. Most any other man in his position would have sent one of the men of the squad back for the shovel, but [Mac] chose to run the danger himself.—Letter from Allen Maxwell; Captain 11th Infantry Commanding Company.

The first thing we did was to get our machine guns placed in case of a counter-attack. It was while engaged in this that McKinley 
was shot. Continue reading

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France, October 11–13, 1918

Town of Highland soldiers who fought in World War I. Photo courtesy of Chuck M.
Town of Highland soldiers who fought in WWI. Courtesy of Chuck M.

Cunel, France, October 11, 1918
On October 11 the attack was renewed early in the morning…Progress was bitterly contested by heavy machine-gun fire and by flanking artillery support, as on previous days.

During the night of October 11-12, the relief of the 80th Division and certain elements of the 4th Division, by the 5th Division, was successfully carried out. The corps front was now held by the 5th Division on the left and the 4th Division on the right.—Ireland, Maj. Gen. M.W. The Medical Department of the U.S. Army in the World War, 
Vol. 8, 1925, p. 692.

The French landscape was devastated. Villages were in ruins, forests were gone; roads were filled with craters and muddy. The American troops had to trudge through mud and face icy winds and rain. By October 11 the Argonne Forest had been cleared but a foothold had not been gained in the area to the east toward the Meuse River.

Jennie Austin, Eldred, 
to McKinley Austin, France
October 12, 1918
My dear Mac,
Just a few lines while I have time. I see in the papers in order to send a package to the soldiers that the soldier one sends the package to must first get a label and send it to the one he expects to receive a package from.

I hope you have sent yours before this as they claim no packages will be accepted without the labels in it. If you don’t get a Christmas package, it will be because we have received no label.

The Spanish Influenza is sweeping the country here, even our school is closed for awhile. No cases being nearer than Shohola, as we know of. We often wonder how you are and if you have escaped it. You must be careful and it is a worry to know at times.

You must be in places where you can not be careful. We have a joke on Dad coming home from Monticello. He met a soldier who had been wounded in France and for a month had been in the hospital of Otisville. He was on his way home and Dad fell in with him at Port Jervis and became so interested that he was carried on beyond Shohola. The conductor was kind enough to slow the train down and let him off at Lackawaxen.

I am afraid my pencil is so dim by the time this reaches you, you will not be able to read it. But Elizabeth is learning to write with pen and ink. It is impossible to find a decent pen in the house.

Willie is still working at Procters. Dad expects to work for John Love some as he gathers 
his garden.

Well I must close as Dad is going to the [post] office. It has been over a month since we heard from you, so we are looking for a letter every day.
Love from all, Mother [The letter was returned.]

Montfaucon, France, October 12 and 13, 1918
McKinley’s outfit arrived in the vicinity of Montfaucon on 
October 12.

They suffered casualties as a result of heavy shelling from enemy guns the next day. The 11th Infantry took up a position around Ferme de la Madeleine that evening, the night of October 13.

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Letters 9/27 to 10/07/1918

McKinley (Mac) Austin’s brother was serving in the Panama Canal Zone.
Raymond Austin, Balboa, Canal Zone, to Mort Austin, Eldred
September 27, 1918
Dear Father,
So you will be glad when the last battle is fought. I think we all will be. I don’t like to discourage you, but I feel we will see quite a while of it yet. Our loss to date has been about 25,000 men, so you see we haven’t fought a single big battle yet and I feel sure there are some big fights in store for us yet. We’ll win though, cost what 
it may.

Tell Bill not to enlist until he is at least 17 years old, unless we should get hard up for men, and I don’t believe we will. There are enough between 18 and 40 to do up this job good and proper.

There is nothing much worth writing that would pass the censor. I am glad you are sending the papers every week. I sure do enjoy reading them. By the way, if you can get any books on military drill, tactics, etc., send them to me.

Hoping you and the rest are all well and happy as I am. If you have any to spare, please send more pictures. With love to all, Raymond

Meuse-Argonne, France, September 28, 1918
A runner was sent back with a message: “For God’s sake send us litters, blankets and food.” The word came back that nothing could be done on account of lack of transportation.

At this time there were 800 men at the dressing station. German airplanes were dropping bombs on the station. It was raining all the time. The men had summer underwear and no overcoats and many of them laid for hours on the ground without litters.—Hoffman, Cap. Harry H., Scrap Book No. VI, p. 1, Feb. 17, 1919.

McKinley Austin, 11th U.S. Inf. 
to Lena Hill, Town of Highland
September 28, 1918
Dear Lena,
Did you get the other letter I wrote? I got a letter from you 
that you wrote just after I left 
the states. I got your picture from my aunt. It was good, but you are much better looking than the picture.

Well, how is everything in Eldred now? I hope to be back there by this time next year or sooner.

It is now about 14 months since I enlisted in the army and I will be glad when the war is over. We are doing our best to get it over soon, too. The Allies are winning everywhere now, and America is doing her share.

I heard from my brother Raymond. He is in Panama now. He seems to like the army pretty well…Hoping you are well. I am your friend, McKinley

Dieulourd and Trondes, France, September 29, 1918
On September 29, while stationed at Dieulourd, 3 enemy shells caused a great number of casualties in 1st Battalion. On October 1, Battalion Regiment Headquarters established at Trondes [102 kilometers (63 miles) to Montfaucon].
—Sgt. John J. Popp.

The first phase of the great American offensive had spent itself without reaching its first objective and with the enemy’s strongest defensive positions still unconquered.—Gansser, p. 170.

Continue reading

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On the way to Romagne-sous-Montfaucon 1918

Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France, was still devasted from the war in 1923. Postcard in collection of Aida Austin.

Meuse-Argonne: First Phase
September 26 to October 3, 1918
It was foggy around 5:30 a.m. Thursday, September 26, when about 600,000 American troops (most of them inexperienced) and their 2,700 artillery guns opened fire on 60,000 well entrenched Germans. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest American campaign of WWI, had begun.

The main U.S. effort took place north and northwest of the town of Verdun, between September 26 and November 11, 1918. It was about 32 kilometers (20 miles) from Verdun to Montfaucon. The American battlefront stretched some 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Argonne Forest to the Meuse River.

Trench warfare in the old sense was now over. The opposing armies had all accepted this new system of thin outpost lines in the fox holes, while the machine gunners moved their guns skillfully about in forming criss-cross zones of fire.—Gansser, p. 197.

The Americans did not capture Montfaucon on September 26.

Col. Patton Wounded
On September 26 Col. Patton Jr. was wounded in the left leg while leading six men and a tank in an attack on German machine guns. Patton’s orderly Private First Class Joe Angelo saved Patton and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Col. Patton, of course, plays a major role in the next war, but as a General.—wikipedia.org.

Montfaucon, Sept. 27, 1918
It was rainy most of September 27. Mud and heavy, wet uniforms slowed things down. Engineers fixed shell holes and laid communication wire on the ground. The wire didn’t work when wet, and was constantly being cut by heavy traffic. Ambulances received priority, ammunition second, artillery, then food. Montfaucon was captured 
by noon.

North of Montfaucon, the Germans were ready with hundreds of German machine guns and snipers, and another division for support. Little if any progress was made by the American troops by evening.

On September 27 the Canadian forces smashed through the Hindenburg Line at a dry section of the Canal du Nord near Cambrai (as planned).

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McKinley Austin September 1918

McKinley Austin, 11th U.S. Inf. A.E.F., to Aida Austin
September 22, 1918 (received Oct. 23)
Dear Aunt,

I am writing to let you know I am well. So far I have received all your letters. They did not come in rotation for I got your fourth, 3 days after your sixth.

I have not written as I should because we have been busy 
and when I get a while off, I 
like to rest.

I got the pictures all right. If you see Lena, tell her I got her letter and wrote once from over here. Her picture is not as good looking as she is, but I knew who it was.

I am glad to hear you are getting along so well on the farm. Next year I may be home to help, of course we can’t be sure. If it is possible to get the land, do so.

When I come back, I will have a couple of hundred dollars or more to help with. I think that I will be lucky here. I have been so far. Well, give my love to all. Your nephew, McKinley

Mort Austin on Jury Duty
In September Mort Austin was on jury duty in Monticello, New York. His wife Jennie Austin wrote him letters addressed to the care of Mrs. Fowler, Monticello, N.Y.

Jennie Austin, Eldred, 
to C.M. Austin, Monticello, N.Y.
September 25, 1918
Dear Mort,
Received your letter tonight and will write a few lines. You have been away 2 days and it seems about that many weeks. You got another nice letter from Raymond. I will send it with this. He has been moved to Balboa. I think that is on the Pacific coast. Wasn’t Balboa the one who discovered the Pacific Ocean?

I only wish we could feel as easy over Mac as we do him. I paid Raymond’s Red Cross money over today. They was after it.

Elizabeth still gets along well in school. Little Anthony made me a short call after school today. He is a bright kid.

Willie is feeling alright again, so don’t worry about him or us. We are feeling fine, but only wish you were here. Still it is a good rest for you and likely you will have to work hard all winter.

I will certainly be good, for I have no chance to be bad.

Take good care of yourself. With lots of love, Jennie

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St. Mihiel, September 1918

Ambulance Corps that Irwin Briggs was with. Photo courtesy MBA.
“I thought of you when I was laying in a shell hole with the German shells throwing dirt and stones all over me.” Mortimer McKinley Austin. Photo courtesy of MBA.
“I thought of you when I was laying in a shell hole with the German shells throwing dirt and stones all over me.” Mortimer McKinley Austin. Photo courtesy of MBA.

11th Infantry
On September 6, 1918, the 11th Infantry left for St. Mihiel. My grandfather Irwin Briggs, a medic, went to the front lines to get the wounded and the dying during the St. Mihiel battle. He would also help at the next major battle, the Meuse-Argonne.

St. Mihiel, Sept. 12–19, 1918
The 11th Infantry (McKinley Austin’s group) barrage started at 1 a.m. on September 12. The regiment got in position for jumping off at 4:30 a.m., and the attack started at 5 a.m.

The Division Front was held by the 10th Brigade. The 11th Infantry was on the right…the 3rd Battalion, an assault battalion, followed and then 2nd Battalion Regiment…taking 100s of prisoners…

On September 13, a short, but fierce counter attack of the enemy was broken up by the regiment. About midnight September 15, the regiment relieved by 61st Infantry, moved into an intermediate position and remained there until September 16.
—Sergeant John G. Popp.

McKinley Austin, 11th U.S. Inf., France, to Jennie Austin
September 19, 1918
Dear Mother,
I was glad to hear from you. I have been busy lately and have not written as I should. I am well and feel as if I will be lucky.

I only wish that I could tell you more about where I have been during the past couple of weeks. You wouldn’t blame me for not writing more. I certainly thought enough about you when I was laying in a shell hole with the German shells throwing dirt and stones all over me.

They are tricky fighters without much idea of honor. Their artillery and machine guns are fair, but their infantry is not much good. It may be I have not seen their good troops yet, but I think we can lick them anytime we have half a chance.

I got a letter from Raymond, a few days ago. He seems quite well satisfied. I think both of us will be more contented with home when we get back.

We are not allowed to get parcels without having permission from some officers and I don’t know as I need anything much now anyway. It is surprising just how little a person really needs. I hope George Dunlap was not badly wounded. Well, I will close with love, Your son, McKinley

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1918 News

Washington Lake Postcard courtesy of Kevin M.
Washington Lake Postcard courtesy of Kevin M.
Hunt for Slackers
New York’s draft cleanup, the detection and putting into uniform of young men who fooled themselves into thinking that they could save their precious skins by evading the selective service law, started on a prodigious scale. More than 42,000 were caught in New York’s boroughs and the nearby cities of New Jersey.

A great specially organized police force of 20,000 men began what is officially called a canvass of the city and metropolitan district, including Hoboken, Jersey City, and Newark…

The proportion of proved slackers was probably less than 3 per cent. The others had left their draft credentials at home or were not of conscript age. The hunt will go on. The canvassers have been asked to be more careful than many of them were the first day.

One of the most important immediate results of the concerted raid was the arrest and identification of five actual deserters from the United States Army.—Republican Watchman, Monticello, July 1, 1918.

Sullivan County Resorts Still Alive with Guests
Eldred Sojourners: The Labor Day weekend finds many Brooklynites enjoying country life at Eldred’s Bradley House and Echo Hill Farm.

The delightful weather of the past few weeks has kept everyone in the best of spirits. Living out of doors during the day has been supplemented by sleeping out of doors at night. The fad is prevalent throughout this section, especially among the younger people. Brooklynites are at Highland Cottage and the Washington Lake House.

The large number of bathers and of boats to be seen at Highland Lake give evidence that the last week of August has been a busy one for proprietors of the hotels. Guests from Brooklyn are at Highland Lake House and Sunset.—Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 1, 1918.

Browning Automatic Rifle
By June 1918, Winchester was in full production of the Browning automatic rifle (B.A.R.), and delivered 4,000 guns. In July there were 9,000 units produced.

Both the Colt and Marlin-Rockwell Corporations began soon after Winchester was in full production. The three companies produced 706 rifles per day, and a total of 52,000 B.A.R.s were delivered by the end of the war.The Browning automatics began to arrive in France by July 1918.

The U.S. Army’s 70th Infantry Division, the first unit to receive the Browning automatic rifles, used them in action for the first time on September 13, 1918.

The Browning Automatic Rifles were used extensively during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and would impress the allies. France would request 15,000 automatic rifles to replace what they had.—wikipedia.org.

From Echo Hill and Mountain Grove, pp. 367, 371, 374.

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St. Mihiel, France, August 30, 1918

Town Square of St. Mihiel, France, 1918. Photo: Schutz Group Photographers. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: Call Number LOT 6944 no. 15 (OSE); 6a35216u.
Town Square of St. Mihiel, France, 1918. Photo: Schutz Group Photographers. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: Call Number LOT 6944 no. 15 (OSE); 6a35216u.

Aida Austin, Eldred, 
to McKinley Austin, France
August 19, 1918
Dear McKinley,
We have been having a few cold days and it seems good after the terribly hot weather we had.

Your dad’s and Uncle Lon’s buckwheat looks fine. Uncle Lon gathered wheat last week. He has a yearling that he is going to put into beef this fall, so with our wheat and buckwheat, meat and vegetables, and fruit that I am putting up, our living won’t cost so very much…I am going to put up some plums and crab apples this week.

The only thing lacking is the chickens…I think you will find a fine flock of chickens on the place when you get back.

I see by the papers, the government is going to make some provision with regard to the education of the boys under 21 when the war is over. So perhaps you will be able to go through Cornell before you settle down as a farmer. I do hope you can, for it will mean so much to you later 
in life…

With love from all, Aunt Aida

I’m not sure how long it took Aida’s letter to arrive in France, but by the end of August there are some big changes underway that will affect McKinley and all the Austins.

St. Mihiel, France
On August 30, 1918, the first American Army under Gen. Pershing’s own command, took over the entire St. Mihiel Front with four Army Corps assembling the 1st, 4th, and 5th American and the 2nd French Colonial Corps.

On that day, Marshal Fock…proposed two new jobs for the American Army. The first was to be an attack between the Meuse and the Argonne Forest, on September 15th by the 2nd French Army supported by from 4 to 6 American Divisions.

At a meeting 3 days later, General Pershing insisted that the American Army be employed as a unit, and not piecemealed out…Pershing asked for the Muese-Argonne Sector. Fifty kilometers of the front from the Argonne to Port sur-Seille well to the east of St. Mihiel was placed under Pershing’s command together with all the French divisions then in that zone.—Gen. Liggett, from Saturday Evening Post, June 4, 1927.

Col. George S. Patton Jr.
General Pershing had earlier ordered the creation of a tank force to support A.E.F.’s infantry. In August 1918 Colonel George S. Patton Jr. (who was involved with training tank brigades) was placed in charge of the 1st Provisional Tank Brigade (later called 304th). Patton would command the French Renault tanks driven by Americans at the St. Mihiel Offensive.—From wikipedia.org.

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Gas Warfare in WWI

Our boys in France learning to correctly use gas masks. Photo: Library of Congress: Keystone View Company, LC-USZ62-92733.
Our boys in France learning to correctly use gas masks. Photo: Library of Congress: Keystone View Company, LC-USZ62-92733.

Both Irwin Briggs and Cyrus Roullion (and probably many of the others in this story) experienced Gas Warfare.

Until the first world war, it was considered uncivilized to use poison gas. The French fired tear-gas grenades against the Germans in August 1914, the first month of the war. Two months later, the German army fired chemical irritants or tear gas. Chlorine gas was used by the Germans in April 1915.

Phosgene gas (with a delayed affect of up to 48 hours after inhalation) was used by both German and Allied armies. The Germans used mustard gas against the Russians in September 1917.

Mustard gas was also used by the Allies. An almost odorless chemical, it caused internal and external blisters several hours after exposure; could burn lungs and cause blindness, and severe burns; and stayed in the soil for weeks after release.

Gas protection first included cotton pads dipped in a solution of bicarbonate of soda held over the face. By 1918 when the use of poison gas was widespread, filter respirators were available.

Deaths from gas after May 1915 were rare, but gas victims would still have a debilitating life after being gassed.—firstworldwar.com

Mustard gas caused the most gas casualties on the Western Front. Both chlorine or mustard gas could cause blindness. Respiratory disease was another common affliction caused by the gas attack. Some died from tuberculosis.—wikipedia.org.

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August 9, 1918

Irwin Briggs on the March in France, 1918. Photo courtesy of MA.
Irwin Briggs on the March in France, 1918. Photo courtesy of MA.

McKinley, France, 

to Jennie Austin, Eldred

August 9, 1918
Dear Mother,

I hope you will pardon me for not writing sooner. But when I had paper, I did not have time and when I had time, I could not get paper. Have you heard from Raymond lately? I have had one letter from him.

I don’t suppose there are so many city boarders up this year.

Aunt Aida sent me a couple of pictures of the children saluting. They certainly looked comical, especially Robbie. Is Willie still working at Proctor’s?

Tell Grandfather that I will write him sometime. When I get back home, we will have some time swapping war stories. Raymond will talk for a week steady when he gets back.

I am getting along well. Except in a big drive there is not much danger, so you need not worry about me. Give my love to all. Your loving son, Mac

Aida Austin, Eldred, 
to McKinley Austin, France
August 11, 1918
Dear Nephew,

The letter I commenced to you the forepart of last week, I did not get finished until the last of the week, but as I have planned to send you a letter every Monday, I will write you a few lines tonight so as to send it off in the morning.

Fred Morgan is home for a few days. I have not seen him…George Sidwell is at one of the camps in one of the southern states. He is attending some kind of a school. His father was telling your dad that at Panama they wanted George to drill for an officer, but George didn’t want to be an officer. It is quite comical to hear about the different fellows from this place being officers.

The Congregational Church had their fair last Thursday and Friday and took in a little over $300 the first day.

We have been having some fearfully hot weather, but it is cooler now again. I hope you haven’t had such hot weather over there.

Be sure and send my letters to Barryville, N.Y., box 26. Hoping to hear from you soon. Your loving aunt, Aida

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