100 years ago today, a division full of new Connecticut recruits encountered their first taste of modern warfare in a small village in northeastern France, repelling a regiment of elite German stormtroopers and holding the front lines against all odds.
The US 26th Infantry Division, nicknamed the Yankee Division because all of its subordinate regiments were composed of New England men, had just arrived in Europe with a full complement of “green” soldiers who had yet to experience battle firsthand. The Yankee Division was stationed in a quiet sector in northeast France for this very reason: Military brass was convinced that German forces wouldn’t attack the area for at least another year, if at all; therefore, the inexperienced new recruits would have plenty of time to adjust to military life on the European front.
However, the Germans had other plans. In the early morning hours of April 20, they staged a surprise attack on the Yankee Division troops stationed in the village of Seicheprey, France. Two hours of artillery fire were followed by a ground assault of German stormtroopers — the most elite and highly-trained soldiers in the German army. The American unit that bore the brunt of the assault was the 102d Regiment of the Yankee Division — a regiment almost exclusively made up of Connecticut men who had never seen, let alone experienced, battle before. Though they were inexperienced, the Connecticut men were still full of esprit de corps and patriotic fervor, having just arrived in Europe after an enthusiastic recruiting drive back home, and resisted the German advance with unexpected (albeit disorganized) effectiveness. Several accounts of the battle make special note of the extraordinary bravery of the 102d Regiment, noting that even members of the military marching band and kitchen staff got involved in hand-to-hand combat. The account of a Connecticut cook killing two Germans with his meat cleaver became a powerful symbol of the unit’s bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, and was included in a memorial stained glass window memorializing the Battle of Seicheprey (shown below).
After more than 24 consecutive hours of fighting, the Germans retreated eastward. The Battle of Seicheprey was, at the time, the largest ground engagement involving American troops in the war, although it was soon eclipsed by many larger and bloodier battles. Seicheprey was hailed by the American press as a rousing victory, but the reality on the ground was more muddled. The Yankee Division had prevented the Germans from advancing or seizing any additional ground in France, but at a horrific and lopsided cost: 81 were dead, 401 wounded and 187 taken prisoner by the German Army. Half of the dead were Connecticut men.
The Battle of Seicheprey may not have been one of the largest American battlefield engagements of World War I by the, but for the Connecticut men of the Yankee Division, it was a brutal trial by fire — one they endured with remarkable bravery and tenacity.
Eric Pace, “A Fierce Battle for Local Heroes,” New York Times
Narayan Segupta, “Battle of Seicheprey, April 20, 1918, US 26th Infantry Division,” USAww1.com
Laura A. Macaluso, “Connecticut Doughboys Remember the Battle of Seicheprey,” newenglandhistoricalsociety.com