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Trench Warfare

Soon after they arrived in France, privates in the North Dakota Regiments were often separated from their units and spirited to the front as replacements. Lacking any combat training, it was baptism under fire. 

Many, such as Anton Peterson from Fargo, or Frank Midak and Raymond Gillette of Minot, found themselves in Ansauville, France approximately six kilometers from the front. 

The men from North Dakota soon settled into a routine where they worked on the trenches by night and rested during the day.  Soldiers waded knee-deep through mud and water, often crawling from shell hole to shell hole to avoid detection.  Soaked to the skin and covered with mud, they stood watch through the constant roar of exploding shells, as artillery and flares illuminated the “no man’s land” between the trenches.  With trenches only seventy-five yards apart, constant shelling from either side took its toll.  The heaviest barrages came during the night as patrols snaked through the shell craters, cutting through the barbed wire to study enemy positions or conduct raids.   All troop movements and resupply was conducted under the cover of darkness.  Chow time in the trenches was at midnight.  Bread was scarce.  Anton Peterson complained there was only enough to feed a grasshopper for one day.  Most of the food, including coffee, was brought to the front in cream cans.  Troops occasionally went several days without food. Cigarettes were scarce. 

Cold, spring rains filled the trenches and heavy artillery bombardments often made the trenches impassable.  Any exposure along the line, including sticking their heads up to look for enemy movement, could result in instant death by sniper fire.  The stench from rotting corpses filled the air, as did the smell of poisonous gas.  Trench foot was common and lice infected their bodies, spreading disease.

The 18th Infantry spent two months at the front where Frank Midak died from an artillery burst.  They were then relieved and removed to the rear.  Arriving in Traveray, Peterson and a buddy bought two dozen eggs, cheese, butter, bread and jam and had a feast.  They also had their first bath and change of clothes since they had arrived at Ansauville.

After a brief rest, they passed through Paris and, on this date in 1918, they entered the trenches at Cantigny.  It was here that the American Expeditionary Forces would mount their first major offensive.  For the North Dakota boys, things were about to get worse.

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis

Sources:

The Ward County Independent, April 18, 1918

War History Commission, Series 30504, Box 1 State Historical Society of North Dakota.

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