The days in France in September can be glorious. The air is warm, freshened by the evening rains, the autumnal colors begin to show, and the wheat and the grape harvest are well under way with all their attendant festivals.
Not so in the year of 1918 after four years of war.
I had two family members on my mother’s side who were involved in World War I. One is my grandfather, the other my great uncle. One is on a memorial in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which began on the 26th of September 1918, ended with the Armistice of 11 November 1918. More than one million American soldiers were engaged. My grandfather, James Madison Pearson took part.
So too did my grandfather’s cousin, Varlaurd Pearson*, as a member of Company I of the 137th Regiment. This regiment was formed in Manhattan, Kansas and was part of the 35th Infantry Division, composed of Kansas and Missouri National Guard units.
This is his story.
It is a short week before the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the last battle in what was then carelessly called The Great War.
The 137th Regiment, formed from members of the Kansas National Guard, have gathered their gear, their rifles and bayonets for the trip by truck from their staging area in the Foret-de-Haye, between the French towns of Nancy and Toul, for the trip to Auzeville, a small village west of Verdun.
Auzéville en Argonne, Clermont-en-Argonne is the French designation of the small farming community. There is nothing special about the village of less than one hundred souls. It is a place to gather troops for the coming offensive and there are dozens of similar gathering places.
Varlaurd Pearson is at Auzéville. His cousin Madison Pearson is at Graffigny-Chemin. Their existence to each other is probably unknown.
The evening of September 25th, 1918
Five days later, and the sun has set.
It is 7pm, the evening of the 25th of September, 1918. Under the cover of darkness, Sergeant Varlaurd Pearson and the men of the 137th Regiment march to their front-line position near Aubreville and Vauquois Hill. As they walk, an American artillery barrage is laid down upon the German lines and the evening sky lights up. The barrage continues well into the night.
There will be little sleep for soldiers on both sides.
The morning of September 26th
At 5:30 in the morning, the soldiers went “over the top”. The now familiar phrase meant that the troops left the relative security of the trenches where they lived with mud and rats, to cross into no-man’s land through barb wire and a cratered landscape all the while suffering the withering fire of machine guns and artillery fire, and occasionally having to deal with deadly gas attacks.
The regiment’s initial objective is the formidable Vauquois Hill, won and lost many times since the beginning of the war and the scene of battles between French and German troops.The hill now resembles a moonscape with its pock marked landscape. Despite the constant warfare for control and the barrage of the evening before, the Germans are well-entrenched. The hill is honeycombed with tunnels.
Perhaps the Germans are tired of defending it, for Vauquois Hill is captured early in the day. Perhaps the Germans wish to draw the Americans in and then counter-attack. Perhaps it is simply a matter of giving up ground by attrition and hoping that the Americans will be bled dry.
In fact, more than 26,000 Americans will lose their lives in the six weeks of fighting and almost 100,000 will become wounded casualties.
The 137th Regiment is certainly glad to be rid of Vauquois Hill. It then fights its way through the woods towards Varennes and the smaller village of Cheppy, short of Charpentry. The regiment had advanced about three miles.
The 28th Division, fighting to the left of the 137th in the woods of the Argonne, is having a tougher go of it. So, the 137th Regiment shifts its actions to the west and northwest where together with the 28th, they take Varennes and Montblainville.
Then they proceed on to Charpentry and Baulny.
The 137th Regiment has now become a salient into the German lines. Other American units press on trying to keep pace but the battle lines are confused.
By the evening of September 27th, the 137th rests on a ridge east of Charpentry overlooking the ravine of Mollevaux. The Germans take this opportunity to regroup and place machine-gun units on the ridge overlooking the ravine.
On the 28th the Germans counter attack with an artillery barrage and the 137th suffers its heaviest losses while pressing on towards Exermont.
The conditions are describes as this:
There was a cold autumn rain. The soldiers advanced through the open fields under heavy machine-gun fire. Their boots were soggy from the wet grass and the streams they crossed. Artillery support which would have suppressed the fire from the German lines was often missing because of delays in bringing the artillery units up.
Future president, Harry S. Truman was captain of Battery D. It is said that his unit was often in advance of other artillery units and his battery was forced to pull their guns one at a time by double teaming with 12 horses, in order to get them through the muddy, shell-torn and German mine-laid fields. They were lucky to arrive to their forward positions by 10 at night in order to prepare for the assault the following morning at 5:30.
Orders from higher up restricted the use of artillery in support of the advancing units, an order Truman often disobeyed.
Varlaurd Pearson’s citation reads:
Varlaurd Pearson (Army serial number 1449077) sergeant, Company I, 137th Infantry Regiment, 35th Division. For extraordinary heroism in action near Baulny, France, September 28th, 1918. Though wounded three times by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued to lead the advance of his platoon, remaining in command for several hours, until he received a fourth wound, which proved fatal.
Distinguished Service Cross
There is a written history of Company C.
*Varlaurd is elsewhere spelled Varlourd.
I have tried to discover the origin of the name, but without success. Varlaurd’s father was General Charles Lafayette Pearson of Dadeville, Alabama, who spent time in France. The surname Varlourd appears there, but infrequently.