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Connecticut Doughboys Remember the Battle of Seicheprey

When the last Connecticut doughboys died in the early 1980s, they took with them memories of a grisly World War I battle that defined their thinking about the war for 60 years.

‘The Battle of Seicheprey’ doesn’t have the same connotation for the American public as do names such as the Marne and the Meuse-Argonne—large, decisive battles that helped turn the tide for the Allies in World War I.

But for Connecticut, Seicheprey, a small ruined village in northeastern France, was the first place the 102nd Regiment was tested in battle. They were a National Guard battalion called up from New Haven, recently arrived in France. They had never been in battle, they had no direct support, and they fought hard, earning the respect of allies and enemies alike.

When the surviving doughboys of the 102nd came home to Connecticut, they worked to memorialize and remember—year after year—their comrades killed at Seicheprey, and who died from the effects of gas and other wartime injuries long after the war ended.

But how long does historical memory persist? The Battle of Seicheprey was clearly important to the state and its people as it was the only battleground in France marked with a monument paid for by the State of Connecticut.

And yet only two decades after the last Connecticut doughboys died, the Battle of Seicheprey was pretty much forgotten.

The Seicheprey battlefield

The Seicheprey battlefield

Yankee Doughboys

The 102nd is often called ‘New Haven’s Own’ because it was (and is today) based in New Haven, and because half the members were from New Haven and New Haven County. The other half were Hartford boys: the 1st Connecticut National Guard from Hartford and the 2nd from New Haven were combined in August 1917—after two months of training at Camp Yale on the western edge of the city—to become the 102nd Regiment. They were filled out with doughboys from Vermont to reach the needed quota.

The 102nd was part of the US 26th Infantry Division, nicknamed the Yankee Division because it was made up of units from the six New England states. It landed in France in September 1917, one of the first four divisions of the American Expeditionary Force to arrive. Most of the Yankee Division doughboys were raw recruits.  They were trained by the poilu, French infantry experienced in trench warfare.

In April – still green and untried in battle – the Yankee Division moved to a quiet section of the western front, in the Toul sector between the Moselle and Meuse Rivers.

The German infantry, or Boche, were still a powerful fighting force that outnumbered and outflanked the Americans.

The morning of April 20, 1918, was ‘one of those clear, dreamy moonlight nights when the war seemed far away,’ wrote a historian of the 102nd. At 3:16 a.m., German stormtroopers attacked the surprised doughboys of the Yankee Division. The 102nd bore the brunt of the assault.

The New Haven Chapter of the Yankee Division Veterans Association remembered the Battle of Seicheprey in much the same way many Americans dealt with the horrors of the two world wars: They often didn’t talk about it with their families, and many suffered in silence.

At the same time, groups such as the Yankee Division Veterans Association erected monuments and memorials. Members wrote large books laying out the history of their regiments and battles. They intended to elevate the dead and document their part in a war that was unlike anything seen until that time.

doughboys-5-windows

Hamden Stained Glass

The second stained glass window in Hamden tells the story of the violent artillery bombardment and hand-to-hand combat endured at Seicheprey by the 102nd Regiment.doughboys window

In the upper right corner of the window, French village houses are shown on fire from a huge artillery explosion nearby. Boche are seen in two stages of raising their arms—in the process of throwing stick hand grenades, called ‘potato mashers,’ at the doughboys. An American prisoner of the German Army, dressed in denim overalls, picks up a meat cleaver to attack.

“Support platoons were pounded so unmercifully that almost every man was killed or wounded,” Strickland wrote.

The doughboys of the 102nd were eventually assisted by the French, but, wrote Strickland, “there had been no falling back…the men of Connecticut had held the line until annihilated!”

For their tenacity—remarked upon by the Boche—the Yankee Division suffered greatly: 81 were dead (40 from Connecticut), 401 wounded and 187 taken prisoner by the German Army.

A. Frederick Oberlin

A. Frederick Oberlin

A. Frederick Oberlin

There were numerous medals given out after Seicheprey, including a Croix de Guerre for A. Frederick Oberlin, shown in the remaining windows in the series.

Oberlin, like so many others who returned from the Great War, was not whole in body. Although he had a successful career for many years as a civil engineer working for the Town of Hamden, he died in 1938 at age 47 due to a ‘long illness brought on by his war injuries in France.’

The series of stained glass windows, unique in the history of memorializing in Connecticut, were installed one year later. Members of the New Haven Chapter of the Yankee Division Veterans Association were in attendance.

The Battle of Seicheprey was a small battle compared to what was to come for the Americans on the western front, but for the 102nd Regiment it was their trial by fire on that never-to-be forgotten morning.

Americans have since encountered greater calamities that pushed aside the memories of a war that was both antiquated and modern, a war of mud and gas, of new airplanes and old guns, of tanks and horses.

And yet when studying the City of New Haven’s monuments and memorials, the group behind the active remembering of the doughboys at Seicheprey was completely forgotten. Until now, with the publication of the book New Haven in World War I.

About the author: Laura A. Macaluso, Ph.D. is the author of New Haven in World War I, a book endorsed by the World War One Centennial Commission in Washington, D.C. The book was published by The History Press, April 2017 and can be found here.

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