This is an account of the work done during the St.-Mihiel offensive by one 340 mm, 14-inch French Rifle, Railroad Mount, manned by Battery B of the 53rd Artillery, C.A.C. Captain (now Major) John K. Meneely, C.A.C., Commanding. Conflans, with its immense railway yards and the enormous round house capable of holding any number of locomotives and trains, was the main German base of supplies and operations in the St.-Mihiel Sector. Hence, in the St.-Mihiel offensive, it was very necessary to fire on Conflans to destroy these railway communications and to the stop the movement of all the trains bringing up supplies, reserves and ammunition for the German defensive. Battery B of the 53rd Artillery, assigned to the task of destroying Conflans, fired continuous fire for destruction and harassing fire from 2:14 a.m. September 12th, 1918, to 5:00 p.m. September 16th, 1918. During this time a total of one hundred one, 340 mm projectiles were sent over. The pictures taken after the offensive, show the terrible destruction wrought by these big shells, each of which weighs 465 kg (1,023 lbs.), 87 kg (191 lbs.) of this total weight being high explosives, and left the muzzle of the gun with a velocity of 847 meters per second. The range from the guns to Conflans was seventeen and half miles, or 28.2 kilometers. According to report of the French yardman, who had been forced to work here by the Germans, the very first shot was a clean hit in the yards, while the third shot dropped right into the Round House. The daily report of operation during this period included the same remark each day. "Battery B, 53rd Artillery, 20 rounds (or 36 rounds as the case might be); target Conflans; results excellent." But behind such crisp, dry official phrases are hidden many hardships, heroisms and achievements.
The Queen Elizabeth, the pet of Battery "B"
Late in the afternoon of September 2, 1918, Battery B received telephone orders to proceed to the front at 4:00 p.m. on September 3rd. The Battery promptly entrained and left Haussimont at 4:00 p.m. and proceeded to Sommedieue. The whole trip was uneventful except for the views obtained of the Forts around Verdun, which were under heavy shellfire. Allied troops were on the road moving up to new positions through a heavy barrage, which was in progress on all roads. Sommedieue was the garage for our train. The garage itself was well covered with overhanging trees but it was also well known to the Germans, who continually harassed it with high explosive shrapnel, making it necessary for the Battery to leave the cars and sleep in immense dugouts practically our whole stay there.
The Firing Position
The firing position, number 956, was at the head of a huge ravine some mile and a half from the Germans. It was a perfect gas trap, and as gas was looked for at any time, every spare moment was taken up with gas precautions. A survey of Sommedieue showed it to be badly shelled, well known to the Germans, filled with French Senegalese troops and certain small living insects too well known to this Battery. It was decided, after looking the situation over, to encamp on the top of the hill near the Battery; so shelters were dug 3 ft. deep, for every two men, and a double shelter tent spread over these shelters. The idea was that a shell striking in the Battery would have to be a direct hit to do any damage. As it rained practically every day of the nineteen that the Battery was in this position, it is easy to imagine the condition of the shelter holes at the expiration of that time. Unhealthy, unsanitary, fine for pneumonia or worse, yet the remarkable feature of this is that during the whole time, not a single man was on sick report. The position itself had been constructed by the French, but the dugouts were inadequate and poor. It was rather laughable to discover some of the tricks of these dugouts, especially in regards to gas. Every possible precaution known to civilized warfare was taken in regard to gas defense, but on the second day, it was discovered, in the Battalion Command station, that the roof of the dugout leaked like a sieve. Where water can penetrate, gas will penetrate as well. Another queer feature of this place was the water situation. There was water everywhere, in the form of rain, but nary a drop to drink. For miles from this chosen site, there was no source of drinking water, and this was the greatest hardship of the whole trip. For days at a time, the Battery went unwashed. However, we quenched our thirst with Vin Rouge. After heaps of digging, shoveling and toiling, the powder dugouts, fuse dugouts and strong-shelters for the men were all constructed and on the night of the 11th of September the Battery was ready to fire.
The Batteries Mission
The mission of the Battery was to fire harassing fire on Conflans en Jarny which was a main Detraining and transfer points for the loads of supplies, reserves and ammunition which arrived from Metz, destined for the St.-Mihiel front. The shelling of the Battery was to destroy the yards, thus stopping the trains from passing through, and stem the flood of reserves that might interfere with the successful completion of the task which General Pershing had assumed when all the allied generals had refused to take the same chance for the past four years; namely, that of a clean cutting off of the St.-Mihiel salient by drawing in from both sides rather than a frontal attack. Everyone knows the result of this plan, with its striking effect on the outcome of the Great War.
Air photograph of Conflans, showing the enormous round-house that was to be destroyed by Battery B.
Getting Ready To Fire
The night of September 11th at 8:00 p.m. orders were received to send a representative to Group Headquarters to await the firing orders. 12 hours previous to our firing, our panel and radio stations had been set up on the reverse slopes of the hill two and a half miles from the battery and telephone communications had been established to Group Headquarters and the Army Central at Dieu. All was apparently well at 10:00 on the night before the firing was to start; communications were given a final test and all found satisfactory. At 10:15 p.m. the Germans dropped a barrage on the road leading from Sommedieue to the position, and at 10:30 communications were again tested and found completely destroyed. And yet firing was to start at 2:00 a.m.
An investigation showed that a German 150 mm shell had fallen on a whole mess of wires and that every communication between our Battery and hundreds of other batteries, supplied throughout these lines was broken. Very hasty repairs were made and communication was reestablished by midnight.
There is a peculiarity in the difference of opinion entertained by the French and by the American Coast Artillery, in regards to powder. The French do not seem to worry about powder getting damp. They ship it in the Ammunition cars, merely under the same shelter as the projectiles, not as we do, in carefully sealed metal containers. As is generally the case, the top of the Ammunition car leaks, rain pours down upon the precious stuff. I have seen powder practically soaked with water, and yet it appeared to fire as well as dry powder.
The Shoot Opens
The first shot was fired at about 2:00 a.m., in the midst of a heavy rain. The pouring streams of rain of course rendered observation impossible, and there was great doubt in the minds of us all, as to the fate of that first shot and the possibility of its being a hit. However, it was after the signing of the Armistice, while on a trip up to see our target that we learned of the fate of this shot. A French yard man, who had been retained in his position during the German occupation, stated that the very first shot we sent over was a clean hit right in the center of the yard; the third shot, he declared, entered the Round House, destroying everything that was inside. You can imagine the consternation those big shells must have caused in the yards. The scurrying of yard engines, the yelling of switchmen, and the turmoil and confusion of it all. It was one of those scenes which many an artilleryman has dreamt of causing, a thing that the fortunate that Battery never tire of telling about.
The round-house at Conflans. Two shots fell in this house, at a time when it was jammed with German locomotives. They flew in all directions - full speed. The French Officer is Lt. Boutellier, the celebrated liasion officer for Col. McMillan and later for the 40th Brigade.
Firing was continued throughout the night and the dawn broke cloudy and with a light rain falling. At 11:00 a.m., however, the sky cleared for a moment and aerial observation was requested of the 219th French Observation Squadron. This squadron was unable to leave their hangar before 3:00 p.m. due to lack of protection planes. However, at 3:00 p.m., seven observation planes went up without protection, having decided that the mission of observation was so important that they could not wait longer for chase planes. The bravery of these observers needs no further mention. Now as to their fate. The seven planes went up over the lines toward Conflans en Jarny. After the test messages, which were exchanged between the planes and the ground radio station, no further messages, were received. At 7:00 p.m., I was informed by Headquarters that of the seven planes, which went on this mission, three only returned, the other for having been brought down in flames behind the German lines. The three had at the time been forced to return without observation. This fatal attempt, with its drain on the resources of the squadron, cut us off from any observation until the night of the 14th, when the commander of the French squadron himself, who in company with two other observation planes and four chase planes, proceeded to within 15 kilometers of Conflans and made observation from the most extreme heights possible to be obtained by an observation plane. Due to the Great angle on which they were observing and also due to the fact that Conflans lies in the valley, this observation proved unsatisfactory.
These trains were full of German troops when the 340mm shells started dropping in the yards. They German troops never made it to the Front.
American Balloon Attempts Reglage
We had another experience with observation when, on the morning of the 14th, an American balloon one-half mile below us, in the same valley, prepare to go up and give us reglage (that is, observation for adjustment). A strong wind was blowing as the balloonists rose, and as the big bag reached a height of about fifty meters; a cross current drove it sharply towards the earth. The rebound broke the cable, and went sailing away towards the German lines. All that day and the night it was buffeted by the upper currents. Inside the basket calmly (?) reposed Lieutenants Tate and Hinman of the Air Service, enjoying life. During the night, the chill of the air cause the balloon to lose its buoyancy, and it landed in the German lines near Mars la Tour.
The Fate Of The Observers
The observers were soon taken prisoner and were placed in the prison train, which was sent back through Conflans en Jarny, while Battery B was firing. As the train drew into the yards at Conflans, a shell from my Battery struck the train, cutting it squarely into, and killing a number of German soldiers in one of the rear coaches. A large fragment of the shell dropped in the compartment just in front of that occupied by the two observers and wounded some German soldiers in that compartment. After the Armistice, two of my Lieutenants met these observers after they had been released and were told of the great consternation caused in the yards by that firing, and how all the trains were shoved through their at a rapid rate. Halting miles outside of town, they would wait for a shell, and then off they would go, steaming through the yards at top speed. At one time, but one track of the whole 50 remained wholly clear so that undoubtedly the Conflans yard was not only interrupted, but was practically at a standstill. The pictures accompanying this story show better than words can tell the effect of Battery B's Queen Elizabeth's fire. Incidentally, it might be well to mention that both of the observers were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their work on this occasion.
The Work Of The S. R. O. T.
The 58th S. R. O. T. (Service Renseignement Observation Terrestrial) which was stationed at Fort de Rosalieres gave excellent observation on this target, which was over 26,000 meters from their stations, and in two cases reported the burning of an ammunition dump, a report later confirmed by the visit to Conflans. The S. R. O. T. also helped us greatly on the three days of our firing when the Boche opened up on us with 150 and 240 mm guns. We would notify the S. R. O. T. that we were being shelled; they would watch the territory covered by their stations when they thought they had located the Battery doing the damage; at a puff of smoke from this Battery they would call over the phone, "Parti."
When the shell arrived at our end of the line, we would call back, "Arrivee." By this method and the by knowing the approximate time of flight, the Battery firing on us would be located by the S. O. R. T., which would then call upon our heavy artillery or French heavies nearby for destructive fire on the German Battery. Thus we were allowed to continue our fire throughout the whole operation even though the Germans had accurately located our position and tried hard to silence our gun.
A German Aviator Comes Over
During this time, there was displayed the most remarkable daring and bravery on the part of a German aviator. One Boche had apparently been detailed to the work of photographing and definitely locating our Battery. We were, however, under the protection of one American and two French anti-aircraft batteries and these Archies worked so well that the enemy planes were kept up at such an altitude that accurate observations and photographs could not be made. At dusk on the night of the 14th, we had just fired a shot, which lit up the whole of the surrounding territory, when we heard the close droning of a German plane. Within another minute, this aviator had descended over the three protecting anti-aircraft batteries, machine gunned our Battery, and was on his way back to Boche-land, wholly regardless of the shells and machine-gun bullets which played all around his machine.
During the entire firing, 109,965 lbs. of high explosive was sent into Conflans, with good results. After the shoot was apparently over, two new cars of ammunition were rushed up, and we received instructions to destroy the viaducts, which crossed the roads just north of Conflans. The powder furnished with the 40 shells was of four distinct lots, varying in manufacture and age from one year to seven years and in muzzle velocity from minus 5 meters per second to plus 25 meters per second, and its qualities were completely unknown. It was a case where the Battery Commander had nothing to do but shoot "By Guess and by God" and hope for the best. Corrections for firing in this case were made on a combination of the bracket and successive approximation systems, has devised by Colonel E. J. Cullen, C.A.C. This method is considered by many to be the best of any in use at the present. Each shot was also plotted and corrected on a grid system, on which the reports of the planes, or the, coordinates sent in by the S. R. O. T. were plotted rapidly and accurately.
Finally, at 5:00 p.m. on the 15th of September, the Battery was given its first rest - a 24-hour one, after four days of continuous work in rain and mud. Through the courtesy of a French hospital we got our first bath and rest since leaving the concentration camp.
On the night of the 15th, when we ceased firing, it seemed to us that the Germans must have retreated at least as far as Metz, yet as we lay in our train later in the night, preparing to move to a new position in the Argonne, we were harassed all night by 240 mm shrapnel. At 6:30 a.m., on the morning of the 17th, we pulled out of Sommedieue, to the accompaniment of shrapnel and high explosives, with the shells bursting on both sides and in the rear of our train.
Editor's Note - Battery B, 53rd Artillery, C.A.C., U.S. Army, was one battery out of 42 railway artillery batteries (66 Guns), organized into seven regiments and manned by the Coast Artillery Corps of the United States Army; forming at the time of the Armistice, with the five U.S. Naval railway batteries (5 Guns), the "Railway Artillery Reserve, American Expeditionary Forces" (71 railway guns) and commanded by Brigadier General William Chamberlaine, U.S. Army, a Coast Artillery officer. Of these regiments, the 42nd, 43rd, 52nd and 53rd comprised the original 6th, 7th, and 8th Provisional Regiments, C.A.C., of the First Expeditionary Brigade, Coast Artillery Troops, which sailed for France in August, 1917, under the command of Brigadier General George T. Bartlett, United States Army.
The 6th provisional Regiment sailed on 14 August, 1917 aboard the HMS ANDANIA with 108 Officers and 1,745 Enlisted men. The 8th Provisional Regiment sailed on 18 August, 1917 aboard the HMS AURANIA with 187 Officers and 1,726 Enlisted men. The 8th Provisional Regiment sailed on 25 August, 1917 aboard the PANNONIA with 79 Officers and 1,696 Enlisted men.
A 340mm Rifle being fired.
In recognition of its meritorious service, the Treasury Department has selected Battery B, 53rd Artillery, C.A.C., to man the Railway Artillery, which is soon to be displayed at various cities throughout this country in the interest of the VICTORY LOAN CAMPAIGN. Its former and famous Battery Commander will command the battery on this tour.
Trains No. 2 and 3 will be Railway Artillery trains. Each will consist of:
One 12 in. Railway Gun
One 12 in. Railway Mortar
One Ammunition Car
One Fire Control Car
One Bunk Car
One Searchlight Car
Each will carry 7 officers 60 and enlisted men. Train No. 2 will go to Chicago and train No. 3 to Washington D.C.
Major John K. Meneely, Coast Artillery, U. S. A., will be in command of the Chicago exhibits and will have as his adjutant Major William H. Donaldson, Coast Artillery. The enlisted personnel of this train will be drawn from Battery B, 53rd Artillery, C.A.C. which organization is noted for its remarkable work in the St.-Mihiel and Argonne offensives, particularly for the dispatch with which it destroyed the great Hun railway transfer point at Conflans, which was the special base for the German forces in the St.-Mihiel Salient.
Major Meneely, when a captain, commanded this Battery during its arduous campaign. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, class of 1915, and has seen over 1 years active service with the Railway Artillery Reserve of the A.E.F. Few, if any, are better qualified to tell of the work of the railway guns in France, of which 66 out of 71 were manned by the Coast Artillery Corps of the United States Army.
Major Donaldson is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, class of 1917, and has had considerable experience on duty in the Headquarters of the South Pacific Coast Artillery District, San Francisco, and as assistant Adjutant of the Coast Artillery Training Center Headquarters, Fort Monroe, VA.
Train No. 3 will be commanded by Major Benjamin N. Booth, Coast Artillery. The enlisted personnel will be drawn from Battery E of the 42nd Artillery, C.A.C., which Battery received the Croix de Guerre from the French government. The citation reading as follows:
"Battery H of the 53rd Artillery regiment called to arms on July 14th, 1918, while the Battery position was being violently shelled, went into action almost instantly, and under the command of Captain Gardner, ceased firing only after it had entirely expended its ammunition. It suffered an uninterrupted bombardment from the enemy, never slackened its own fire an instant, this in spite of serious losses among its personnel. "
At the time of this famous incident the Battery was known as Battery H, 53rd Artillery, C.A.C., becoming upon later reorganization, Battery E of the 42nd, its present designation. It is an old Regular Army unit having been organized April, 1898, as Battery H of the 7th Artillery, and was stationed at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina at the outbreak of the war.
This article appeared in the April 12th, 1919 edition of "Liaison, The Courier of The Big Gun Corps". The official newsletter of the Coast Artillery Corps.
Battery B, 53rd Artillery loading a shell into a 340mm gun.
George McKinley Sharretts
Sergeant Battery B
53rd Artillery, C.A.C.
March 29, 1898
December 5, 1918
|Sgt. George M. Sharretts served with Battery B of the 53rd Artillery through it's service in France during the war. After his return to the States he remained in the Army and during a accident on the rifle range was accidentaly shot and killed at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Ken Dombroski in 2011 while going through the Wynn Cemetery, found Sgt. Sharretts stone, photographed it and shared it with a copy of the obituary from the local Summerdale newspaper. The name of the the cemetery is the Wynn Cemetery in Summerdale, AL, located at the intersection of Co. Rd. 32 and Co. Rd. 73. The town is between Mobile, AL and Pensacola, FL., about 16 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. The Sharretts name is from a line of long time residents in this area that were primarily farmers.
Thursday, December 18, 1919
On Saturday morning all Summerdale community was shocked and turned from rejoicing to mourning when the news rapidly spread that his family had received a telegram that Sergeant George M. Sharretts had been accidentally shot and instantly killed by a comrade who was cleaning a gun after target practice. The accident occurred the evening of December 5th, at Ft. Eutis, Va. A pall of sadness hung over our otherwise cheerful neighborhood from then until after the funeral which occurred on Thursday, the 11th, the remains having been delayed by the floods up the country. Sergeant P. J. Murphy, his former “buddy”, accompanied the body. It stills seems impossible for us to realize the truth for George, who had grown to young manhood right here in our midst, where he was admired and loved by all from where he had gone to offer his life for his country, having served in the army for three years, almost two of which was spent on Flanders Field, had just left here for Virginia, after spending the Thanksgiving Holidays on furlough among his friends and relatives.
He had left us in perfect health on Sunday morning, smiling and happy in anticipation of the time when his service ended and he should be at home again permanently. The funeral was the most largely attended of any event in the history of Summerdale, many coming from a distance, especially his former comrades who were here in uniform.
The pallbearers were Messrs. Ed Rohrberg, Eugene Leham, Ward Phillips, Frank Leutner, Marshall Wynn, and Henry Ellingson, all former service men of this immediate neighborhood. Rev. H. V. Daffin, a former pastor of Point Clear, conducted the service, which was very impressive.
Many and beautiful were the floral offerings from friends and relatives and from the Baptist Sunday School of which he was a member, the Methodist Sunday School, the Eastern Star, the Book Club, the Women's Club and from his former Company, which sent a magnificent token of their esteem and affection, in the shape of a beautiful shield.
George’s aunt, Mrs. Walter Sharretts, came from Chicago for the funeral and will remain for an extended visit with relatives and friends. It seems difficult for us to again settle down to the routine of our lives, after this sad experience.
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