The tide turns
On 29 April the Georgette Offensive ground to a halt. The Germans had lost 240,000 men; British and French losses were 348,000. Still the war went on, but time was running out for the German Army. The arrival of American troops and more and more Allied tanks and aeroplanes for use in co-ordinated attacks was clear to make a difference. The German High Command made one more attempt to force a settlement. On 27 May 1918 Operation ‘Blücher’ began with a tremendous barrage which obliterated the wire and most of the front-line trenches and dug-outs of the British front at Chemin des Dames. In a single day the Germans advanced ten miles and a week later they were back on the River Marne, where they had last been in 1914. German heavy guns were in range of Paris and began shelling the outskirts.
The five British divisions caught up in the German onslaught lost 28,000 men but more ominously for the Germans they met American troops in combat at Château-Thierry, the town on the Marne which marked the farthest point of their advance. Other American divisions were now entering the line, and with their appearance at the front the German High Command knew they had now lost the war – it was only a matter of time. Two more German attacks were launched at the French Third and Tenth Army lines, which made some gains before being finally halted.
In April 1917 the United States had entered the war on the side of the Allied powers after Germany’s decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare and sink every ship that approached Europe. Recruiting posters appealed directly to Irish-Americans living in New York to join the 69th Infantry Regiment, the famous Irish ‘Fighting 69th’ which had fought on the Union side in all the great battles of the American Civil War. John Devoy’s newspaper, The Gaelic American reminded readers that the Irish had loyally taken part in every American conflict going back to the War of Independence. For its war service the regiment had been renamed the 165th Infantry Regiment and was part of the US Army’s 42nd Infantry ‘Rainbow’ Division, so-named because it had regiments from all parts of America.
During the fighting in late June and July 1918 the newly-arrived American soldiers proved they were the equal of any troops in the field. The Fighting 69th and the rest of the 42nd Rainbow Division stopped the German Friedenstrum Offensive in the Second Battle of the Marne, but not without heavy casualties. One of the dead was Corporal Michael J. Leonard, of Athy, Co. Kildare, killed in action on 16 July. Aged thirty-seven when he died Michael Leonard had enlisted in New York City on 13 July 1917. He resided with his wife Annie and four children at Belair Road, Staten Island and was employed in Brooklyn, as a book-keeper. Michael Leonard was a reservist when America entered the war and had previously served with the Fighting 69th in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Two days later the Americans and French launched a counter-attack that marked the beginning of the German Army’s retreat from France. The Fighting 69th led the crossing of the Ourcq River – the Irish called it the O’Rourke River – on 28-31 July, but in four days of heavy fighting suffered 264 men killed in action, 150 missing in action, and 1,200 wounded out of the 3,000 man regiment.
Another Kildare casualty was Corporal Frederick A. Fleming, son of the late RIC Sgt. William Fleming and Mary Murphy, Canal View, Sallins, who was killed in action on 29 July 1918. Fred Fleming was born at Grangemellon, Athy, and enlisted in the US Army in New York. His brother, Private Joseph Patrick Fleming, was serving with the British Army’s 7th Royal Irish Regiment and he died from wounds received at Shropshire the following year.
Having broken the German lines Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur was looking to press forward. He was informed that the regiments were too worn out by the recent fighting to advance any further. However, the decimated Fighting 69th replied that it would still ‘consider an order to advance as a compliment’. A delighted MacArthur exclaimed ‘By God, it takes the Irish when you want a hard thing done!’
During the war the total casualties of the regiment amounted to 644 killed in action and 2,587 wounded (200 of who would later die of their wounds) during 164 days of front-line combat. One member of the regiment killed was Daniel Buckley, of Boherbue, Co. Cork, who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Three of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor, including its famed 1st Battalion and later regimental commander, William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. During WWII Colonel Donovan went on to organize the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA.
The Fighting 69th also produced the beloved Father Francis Patrick Duffy, ‘The Fighting Chaplain.’ Fr. Duffy was always seen in the thick of battle, assisting the litter bearers in recovering the wounded, administering last rites, burying the dead, and encouraging the men, while unarmed, and at great risk to his own life. Fr. Duffy became the most highly decorated cleric in the history of the United States Army. Because of his bravery and inspired leadership at one point the brigade commander, Douglas MacArthur, even considered making him the regimental commander, an unheard of role for a chaplain. After the war Fr. Duffy served as a pastor of Holy Cross Church in Hell’s Kitchen, a block from Times Square, until his death in 1932.