Friday, August 18, 2017

Canadians At The Second Battle of Ypres -- April 22nd, 1915 - May 25th 1915 - Canadians Stand Tall!!!

Despite the incessant German shelling that had been hammering away at the French lines to their immediate left near the rubble-strewn city of Ypres in northwestern Belgium, the largely untested soldiers of the Canadian 1st Division found the early spring day of April 22, 1915, surprisingly warm and pleasant. Worn out from a long night of stringing barbed wire and repairing trenches in the infamous Ypres Salient of the Allied front, the men lounged at ease in their forward positions. Behind the lines, reserve troops played casual games of soccer, while their officers enjoyed a gentlemanly round of polo. Even when the shelling shifted to the Canadian position in the late afternoon, the troops were not unduly alarmed. Eventually, the bombardment petered out and German planes that had been circling over the front lines abruptly disappeared.

Suddenly, around 5 pm, heavy rifle fire and renewed shelling broke out in the French sector of the salient. Then an ominous yellow-green cloud began to drift toward the French lines, pushed along by a warm westerly breeze. What had been a beautiful day was about to turn very ugly indeed.

The Canadians comprising the 1st Division were all starry-eyed volunteers, eager young men who had flocked to recruiting offices across the nation after word reached the various provinces on August 4, 1914, that Great Britain was at war with Germany. Although a self-governing dominion that looked after its own domestic affairs, Canada was still part of the British empire and when Great Britain was at war, Canada was at war. Plans were quickly made to raise a division of 25,000 men to rush to Britain’s aid. By September 8, almost 33,000 men had joined up to fight. Another 2,000 would arrive shortly at Quebec’s newly constructed Camp Valcartier.

Within a month, the volunteers were organized into three infantry brigades—12 battalions in all—and other troops went into cavalry, artillery, engineering, signal, and medical units. On October 3, some 31,000 Canadian troops filed onto 30 transport ships for passage to England. Eleven days later the convoy, accompanied by a Royal Navy battleship and cruiser, docked at Plymouth to a warm welcome from cheering crowds. Awaiting the 1st Division was their new commander, Lt. Gen. Edwin Alderson, a veteran of 36 years in the military. A kindly, gentle man, Alderson had commanded Canadian troops in the Boer War. He would prove popular with the men in his new command as well.

The newly arrived Canadians were sent to Salisbury Plains, 100 miles northeast of Plymouth, where they began four months of intensive training near the famous Druid shrine at Stonehenge. It rained for 89 of the next 123 days, and many of the recruits came down with the flu, sore throats, and meningitis. Twenty eight men would eventually die of the latter disease. Finally, in February 1915, the much-awaited order came for the 1st Division to sail to France. Before they left, Alderson replaced the men’s uncomfortable boots and scratchy tunics with better quality British goods. Much to their chagrin, however, the men retained the widely despised .303-caliber Ross Rifle, which had an unfortunate tendency to jam when fired rapidly or loaded with British ammunition.

Once in France, the 1st Division was sent to a quiet sector of the Flanders front and paired with a veteran British unit for advanced training. Officers and men rotated into the front-line British trenches for 48 hours at a time to gain a little first-hand experience. The division then moved on to Fleurbaix, where it enjoyed a front-row seat at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on March 10-13. There, the British 1st Army under General Douglas Haig nearly achieved a startling breakthrough of the German lines, only to falter from faulty communications and lack of support. The Canadians’ sole contribution to the fighting was to provide some diversionary fire while British and Indian troops unavailingly attacked the enemy trenches.

Despite their comparative uninvolvement at Neuve Chapelle, the Canadians found their first taste of trench warfare a good learning experience. They were praised by their superiors for being “magnificent men … very quick to pick up new conditions and to learn the tricks of the trade.” It was good that the Canadians were quick learners, for they were soon transferred to General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s 2nd Army, stationed in the center of the 17-mile-deep Ypres Salient held by Allied troops in northwest Belgium. In mid-April the Canadians moved into line to take over from the French 11th Division. The position they were entrusted with holding was 4,250 yards wide. The 2nd Brigade held the right half of the sector, the 3rd Brigade the left, and the 1st Brigade was held in reserve.

To their dismay, the Canadians found the French trenches an absolute mess. Not only were they widely scattered and unconnected, but they had little in the way of barbed-wire defenses, and the existing parapets were not thick enough to stop an enemy bullet. The newly arrived defenders did not see how the sector could possibly be held if a determined effort was made to take it by a strong force. The trenches also stank since the French had been using them as latrines. Adding to the overall foulness were hundreds of dead German bodies lying between the lines in no-man’s-land. More rotting corpses were discovered when the Canadians began improving their own positions. In one part of their trench the men in the 10th Battalion found a human hand sticking out of the mud. The men took to shaking it wryly as they passed.

By the spring of 1915, the Ypres Salient was considered one of the most dangerous places on the Western Front. It had already seen more than its share of fighting and death. In October and November 1914, a thin line of British regulars repeatedly beat back massive German assaults. By the time the fighting stopped for the winter, almost a quarter of a million men had been killed or wounded. Tactically speaking, the Ypres Salient held no particular military significance for the Allies.

The ground, located on the Flanders flood plain, was low and flat, broken here and there by a handful of long, shallow ridges. What terrain advantage there was around Ypres was held by the Germans, who manned the higher ridges overlooking the salient. With excellent observation posts and clear lines of sight, German artillerists were able to rain down torrents of accurately placed shells on the exposed Allied position. The real reason for holding the salient was symbolic, as it was the last remaining piece of contested Belgian real estate still lying in Allied hands. As such it represented their unyielding determination to win the war.

Although the Germans had been stopped in 1914 from taking the salient, they had by no means given up on closing the bulge. General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German General Staff, planned another limited offensive against Ypres in April 1915. Falkenhayn believed the coming attack would act as a diversion from the Germans’ main push against the Russians on the eastern front. It would also give them a better strategic position along the English Channel. Last but not least, it would provide them with a golden opportunity to try out a new and terrible offensive weapon: lung-destroying chlorine gas.

The Germans had already experimented with less deadly forms of gas warfare at the first battle of Neuve Chapelle in October 1914, and at Bolymov on the Eastern Front in January 1915. Those attempts, sneezing powder at Neuve Chapelle and tear gas at Bolymov, had been ludicrous failures.

In both cases, the chemical agents had failed to disperse, and the Allied troops had not even noticed they were under attack. Later that winter, Nobel Prize-winning German chemist Fritz Haber, then serving in the army reserve, suggested that the German high command consider using chlorine gas, which Haber said could be delivered through a relatively simple system of compressed-air cylinders discharged through exhaust pipes dug into the ground. Such a delivery system, besides being more efficient than gas pellets packed into traditional artillery shells, had the added advantage of not expressly violating the Hague Convention prohibiting the use of gas-loaded projectiles.

With typical Teutonic industry, the Germans began installing Haber’s chlorine-gas cylinders in their trenches along the south side of the Ypres Salient in early March. The cylinders, each five feet tall and weighing 190 pounds, were grouped in banks of 10. They were joined through a manifold to a single discharge pipe controlled by a chemically trained pioneer. By March 10, some 6,000 cylinders were in place. Interestingly enough, the first casualties were three German soldiers who were killed when Allied shells struck some of the cylinders, releasing the gas behind German lines. After two frustrating weeks of waiting for the weather to cooperate and the wind to blow in the right direction, Duke Albrecht of Wurttemberg, commander of the German 4th Army at Ypres, changed the battle plan.

Instead of unleashing the gas against the south side of the salient, the Germans would attack the northern side between the towns of Steenstraat and Poelcappelle. Accordingly, the front-line troops began installing gas cylinders in the trenches facing the northern sector. By April 11, some 5,730 transplanted cylinders were in place. The attack was scheduled for April 15. Two corps, the XXIII and XXVI Reserves, would carry out the assault. Behind a cloud of chlorine gas, they were to drive a mile and a half into the salient and capture the ridge beyond. There, they were to dig in and provide covering fire for additional troops. The Germans believed that the loss of the ridge would make it impossible for the Allies to remain within the salient. Once again, the appointed day brought no westerly wind, and the attack was rescheduled for the 22nd.

Reports that the Germans were up to something ominous had been filtering into Allied lines for quite some time. On April 13, a German deserter crossed no-man’s-land into the French trenches, bringing with him potentially key information. Interrogated at the French 11th Division headquarters, the deserter talked freely of German troop strength and warned that an attack involving “asphyxiating gas” was imminent. The French division commander took the matter seriously enough to send a warning to the British. The French high command, however, thought they knew better than the officers at the front. They dismissed the threat out of hand and reprimanded the officer in question for communicating directly with the British troops.

Another German deserter denied resolutely that his army was planning to use poison gas. He said the suspicious packet of cotton he was carrying on his person was intended to protect him against a possible French gas attack. On April 16, a Belgian spy confirmed that tubes of asphyxiating gas were indeed being placed along the German front. Belgian intelligence also reported that the Germans had ordered 20,000 mouth respirators from their supply depot at Ghent. British aerial reconnaissance, however, reported that there had been no unusual German movement behind their lines. To be on the safe side, Lt. Gen. Sir Herbert Plumer, commander of the British V Corps, alerted his divisional commanders of a possible gas attack. When the rumored attack did not immediately materialize, life in the trenches returned to normal—but not for long.

On the morning of April 22, German soldiers anxiously waited in their trenches for the final signal to go forward. The attack was scheduled to begin at 5 am, but once again the wind was not cooperating. There was nothing the Germans could do but sit and wait. An entire morning and afternoon passed. Finally, orders reached the front for the men to get ready to go over the top. The attack was on.

At 5 pm, the cylinders were opened, spewing some 149,000 kilograms of greenish-yellow chlorine gas through their exhaust pipes toward the French line, which was held by two divisions, the 87th Territorial and 45th Algerian. As roiling clouds of the deadly gas reached the French lines, horrified soldiers began grabbing at their throats, rolling on the ground, and coughing up great gouts of blood as they fought in vain for oxygen. The panicked Territorials scrambled out of their trenches in a desperate effort to escape the toxic cloud. To add to their misery, German artillery opened up on the French lines shortly after the gas was released. Twenty minutes later, German troops wearing cotton masks wrapped with gauze cautiously crept forward into the salient.

Pockets of disoriented French infantrymen attempted to put up some resistance, but most of their comrades had already fled in terror. On the other hand, French artillerymen stuck valiantly by their 77mm guns and began blasting away at the oncoming Germans. By 7 pm, the attackers had silenced most of the guns, capturing 57 of them. The rest were pulled away by the retreating French.

Situated to the immediate right of the French position, the Canadians in the 1st Division watched with growing alarm as their allies ran for their lives. Wildly bouncing ambulances and ammunition wagons crammed with wide-eyed, terror-stricken African troops smashed through hedges and careened over ditches past the Canadians, desperate to escape the horror behind them. Alongside the wagons came more French infantrymen, running weaponless toward the rear. Adding to the intense confusion, Belgian civilians from Ypres also clogged the roads, attempting to escape. The northern part of the salient was quickly becoming a shambles. A four-mile-wide gap had opened in the French lines, and the 50,000 remaining British and Canadian troops were in imminent danger of being cut off.

Slowly but steadily, the hideous yellow-green cloud began drifting toward the Canadian lines. A quick-thinking medical officer, Captain F.A.C. Scrimger of the 14th Battalion, 3rd Brigade, immediately determined that the gas was chlorine and came up with a temporary, and somewhat unusual, solution. Scrimger had the men in his unit urinate onto their handkerchiefs, then tie them around their mouths. In this way, it was hoped that the chlorine would crystallize before they breathed it in. Luckily for the Canadians, the gas already had begun to dissipate, and the men received only a mild gassing, causing watery eyes, runny noses, and slight breathing difficulties.

With the worst danger from the gas averted, the Canadians faced the more pressing task of how to slow down the German advance and plug the gap in the salient. The current situation looked grim.

The 13th Battalion, the Royal Highlanders, held the trenches on the left flank as far as the Poelcappelle road, but their own flank had been left unprotected by the fleeing French troops.With the help of a few Algerian troops remaining in the vicinity, Majors Rykert McCuaig and Edward Norsworthy organized a defense along the Poelcappelle-St. Julian road. From a shallow ditch alongside the road, the Highlanders made a brave but doomed attempt to stop the Germans from outflanking the Canadian position. All the troopers were either killed or captured in the brief, sharp fight, but the stand by the 13th Battalion had managed to slow down the Germans and make them wary in the growing darkness.

With the fall of McCuaig’s and Norsworthy’s little force, four guns of the 10th Battery under Major William King were the only remaining resistance along a mile-wide gap between the front lines and Saint-Julien. The guns pounded away at a nearby house the Germans had just captured, then wheeled around to open fire at point-blank range on a column of Germans marching west along the Poelcappelle road. As darkness fell King knew he was in trouble as there was no way he could hold his position for much longer. Just in time, 60 Canadians from the 13th Battalion arrived from Saint-Julien and fell in alongside King’s gunners.

Time after time the Germans attacked, only to be driven back by 19-year-old Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher and his four-man Colt machine-gun crew. After Fisher’s men were killed in the raging fight, he fought on alone, taking his gun to a more exposed position and continuing to mow down the Germans. Meanwhile, King’s gunners dragged off their own guns to prevent them from being captured by the quickly closing enemy. Fisher died defending the battery, and later become the first Canadian soldier in the war to receive the Victoria Cross.

After the fighting withdrawal at Poelcappelle, there was no more organized Allied resistance between Saint-Julien and the Canadian lines. The Germans, however, had been badly bloodied themselves, and they uncharacteristically hesitated, unsure what level of resistance awaited them in the dark. While the Germans halted for the night, the Canadians attempted to plug the mile-wide hole in their line and prevent the enemy from wheeling south and cutting them off inside the salient.

As darkness gathered, the 10th and 16th Battalions were ordered to make a counterattack against the Germans at Kitchener’s Woods, a thick clump of trees immediately west of Saint-Julien. Control of the woods would allow the Germans to penetrate Canadian lines the next morning and capture the town. At 11:45 pm, 1,500 men in the two battalions set out for their jumping-off point, Mouse Trap Farm, 500 yards away. A planned conjunction with French troops never materialized since by now most of the French were far away, but the Canadians moved on as quietly as possible. Two hundred yards from the woods, the men ran into a six-foot-high hedge interlaced with barbed wire. As the Canadians struggled to extricate themselves from the unexpected barrier, a German flare wavered overhead and lit the darkness.

The Germans immediately opened up with machine-gun and rifle fire. The Canadians hit the ground to avoid the deadly hail of lead. Major James Lightfoot of the 10th Battalion jumped to his feet and shouted, “Come on, boys, remember that you’re Canadians!” The troops lunged to their feet with a wild yell and charged the woods. Despite intense machine-gun fire, a few determined soldiers reached the German position and drove off the enemy in a wild clash of bayonets.

With the capture of the trench, the remaining men in the 10th and 16th Battalions moved in and cleared out most of Kitchener’s Woods, opening their own 1,000-yard wedge in the German lines. Taking fire from every direction, it soon became painfully clear to the Canadians that they would not be able to hold the woods. Comrades from the 2nd and 3rd Battalions moved up to support the troops, but as daylight dawned they were shot to pieces as they attempted to cross the open countryside. The soldiers already inside the woods hunkered down and held on—for how much longer no one could say.

Across the lines, the Germans were anticipating victory. The XXIII Reserve Corps was given the assignment of crossing the Canal de l’Yser, six miles to the west, and taking Poperinghe. Meanwhile, the XXVI Reserve Corps was to continue driving south against the Canadians. By fording the canal and cutting off the top of the salient, the Germans would force the remaining British and Canadians to retreat. With a five-to-two advantage in men and a five-to-one advantage in artillery, the Germans had good reason to feel confident. Added to this was the fact that the frontage the Canadians now held had almost tripled after the first-day rout of the French territorials.

The Canadians worked feverishly to fill the gaps opened by the previous day’s fighting. The most glaring was a two-mile-wide gap west of Saint-Julien. Orders came down from General Alderson himself for the 1st and 4th Battalions of the 1st Brigade to launch a counterattack to relieve the gap. “At 5 o’clock two French battalions are to make counterattack against Pilckem with their right resting on Pilckem-Ypres road,” Alderson wrote. “You will cooperate with this attack by attacking at the same time with your left on this road.”

Throughout the early morning hours the Canadians waited for the French, but once again they failed to show. Lt. Col. Arthur Birchell, who was to lead the charge, thought he saw the French forming at a farm a mile away and gave the order for his own troops to move out. He was wrong. As had happened previously at Kitchener’s Woods, the French did not appear, and the Canadians were forced to make the attack alone. Sixteen hundred men moved in parade order toward the ominously named Mauser Ridge, where the Germans were busy digging in.

The ridge was 1,500 yards away, and the Germans let the Canadians move into easy rifle range before they opened up. Said Corporal Edward Wackett of the ensuing slaughter, “It did not seem possible that any human being could live in the rain of shot and shell that began to play upon us as we advanced. … For a time every other man seemed to fall.” The suicidal attack quickly failed and the survivors took cover behind small piles of manure. Over on the right flank, two companies from the British 3rd Middlesex Regiment joined in the attack and managed to struggle to within 400 yards of the German position before they, too, were stopped. Although pinned down, Birchell would not give up. He asked for and received reinforcements from the 1st Battalion, who arrived to help the 3rd Middlesex seize a farmhouse on the right flank. For the rest of the day, the Allied troops dug in as best they could and struggled to hang on to their hard-won positions.

In the afternoon, the British 13th Brigade arrived on the scene with orders to take the ridge in yet another supposedly coordinated attack with the French. One British force was to attack on the west side of the Ypres-Pilckem road that ran up Mauser Ridge, while another detachment consisting of a battalion each from the Buffs, the Middlesex, the 5th King’s Own, and the 1st York and Lancaster Regiments was to advance through the pinned-down Canadians on the east side of the road.

The British charged at 4:25 pm and were instantly shot to pieces, just as the Canadians had been earlier that day. French Zouaves, at last arriving on the scene, advanced slowly in front of the 13th Regiment and promptly dug in, causing the British troops to veer to the right and overcrowd each other, making them prime targets for the rattling German machine guns. The Canadians jumped up to join the attack, but it did little good. The Canadians suffered 850 dead or wounded in the futile attempt to take the ridge, while the British losses were even more staggering, nearly 4,000 in all.

Luckily for the Allies, Duke Albrecht failed to exploit the gaps in their lines, largely due to the vicious British and Canadian counterattacks. That night the Germans moved in an additional 34 battalions to overrun the eight Canadian battalions strung out between Gravenstafel and Kitchener’s Woods. The attack was slated to get under way at first light. To help the advance, the Germans planned to unleash more chlorine gas on the Canadians, fully expecting them to turn tail and run the way the French had done two days earlier.

During the long night of waiting, the Canadians strengthened their tenuous position, bringing in supplies and setting up barrels of water throughout the trenches so that the men could wet their handkerchiefs in case of another gas attack. It was not long in coming. At 4 am, the Germans released a heavy green gas cloud that a northeasterly breeze carried swiftly into the Canadian lines. The 8th and 15th Battalions, which held the 1,200-yard-wide front, received the worst of the gassing.The soldiers of the 8th Battalion, nicknamed the “Little Black Devils,” put their wet handkerchiefs to their mouths as the 15-foot-high wall of gas seeped toward them. The men soon found breathing difficult, and many fell to the ground coughing, spitting, and retching from the fumes. Despite this, the 8th did not run. Instead, they grimly prepared to meet the Germans.

In order to catch a glimpse of their shadowy attackers, the Canadians were forced to climb out of their trenches to see over the gas. It was a swirling, confused situation made worse by the fact that the hated Ross rifles constantly jammed. Somehow, the 8th Battalion, with the help of enfilading fire from the 5th Battalion, managed to stop the Germans cold. Unfortunately, the 15th Battalion on the left did not fare as well. “Imagine hell in its worst form and you may have a slight idea what it was like,” Sergeant William Miller later commented. Here the gas was so bad that even the wet handkerchiefs did not dampen the effect. To further complicate matters, the 48th Highlanders holding down the apex of the line could not be supported by enfilading fire.

The 15th Battalion broke. With covering fire from two Colt machine guns, the battalion began falling back in the direction of Saint-Julien. Some fell into the reserve trenches on Gravenstafel Ridge. The Germans were on the brink of pouring completely through the weakened Canadian lines. Already, they were within 300 yards of the ridge. If they took the high ground there, the entire Canadian front would be lost.

To protect Gravenstafel Ridge, the 10th and 16th Battalions were ordered from Kitchener’s Woods. The 10th had already taken a heavy beating there and was down to 20 percent of its original strength. The two battalions managed to race across open ground and reinforce the other Canadian units, just in time to beat back another massed German attack. Fierce fighting raged everywhere along the line. Between Saint-Julien and Kitchener’s Woods, Canadian troops positioned between two farmhouses beat back repeated enemy attacks. Seeing that sheer numbers and poison gas alone could not break the Canadian line, the Germans turned to their numerically superior artillery, subjecting the Canadians to a horrific shelling.

With the Germans now firing at them from three sides, it was becoming painfully clear to the Canadian troops on Gravenstafel Ridge that they were in a desperate situation. Rifles jamming, ammunition running low, and the dead bodies of their comrades piling up around them, the stubborn defenders at the base of the ridge attempted to fight their way through the Germans in small groups.

The survivors of the 7th Battalion, positioned northeast of Saint-Julien, were greatly helped in their escape efforts by Lieutenant Donald Bellew and Sergeant Hugh Peerless, who covered the retreat with Colt machine guns. Letting the Germans get within 100 yards, the two unleashed a telling volley. The Germans resolutely continued their attacking. Peerless was killed and Bellew wounded, but the indomitable lieutenant was not done yet. He continued to man his machine gun until it was out of ammunition, then disabled it. Next he picked up a bayoneted rifle and took on the swarming Germans in hand-to-hand combat. Finally overwhelmed, Bellew was taken prisoner. He would later receive the Victoria Cross for his exploits. The fellow Canadians he had helped to escape linked up with the 14th and 15th Battalions and established a new defensive line 300 yards in the rear.

Saint-Julien still remained in Canadian hands, but not for long. The three companies defending the town took a terrific pounding from German artillery, then fought a wicked street fight with 12 enemy battalions before being swept away. By 3 pm, the Germans had complete control of the town, and the handful of Canadians still alive were captured.

Brig. Gen. Richard Turner, commanding the 3rd Brigade, ordered his troops to fall back to the General Headquarters Line along the Saint Jean-Poelcappelle road. It was a grievous mistake by Turner, who somehow had misinterpreted the simple order to “hold your line.” Turner took this to mean the GHQ line. Besides causing hundreds of new Canadian casualties, the mistaken withdrawal opened a two-and-a-half-mile gap between the 3rd Brigade’s original trenches and the GHQ line. Only a handful of Canadians remained in the gap, including the beleaguered defenders of Gravenstafel Ridge.

General Arthur Currie, in command of the 2nd Brigade, continued to hold Gravenstafel Ridge, but unless reinforcements arrived soon he would have to retire. Fresh British troops were nearby, but they had been ordered to stay in the rear. Currie needed these men, and he personally headed to the rear to get them. The ever-punctilious British officers would not move their units without written orders, however, and Currie headed over to the British 27th Division headquarters to get the necessary pieces of paper. Once there, he had a fiery run-in with Maj. Gen. Thomas Snow, the British commander. Currie informed Snow in no uncertain terms that his men were barely hanging on and were in desperate need of reinforcements. Snow was unmoved. He verbally abused Currie for not holding the line on his own. On his way back to the 2nd Brigade, Currie managed to round up a few stragglers, but for the most part the Canadians holding Gravenstafel Ridge remained unsupported.

Despite Snow’s blustery words to Currie, the British commander eventually ordered reinforcements to assist the Canadians. The 12th Suffolk and 12th London Ranger Regiments headed toward the gap Turner inadvertently had caused. More British troops began arriving to reinforce the 3rd Brigade at Fourtin in hope of stopping the Germans from reaching the GHQ line. British troops from the York and Durham Brigade ran headlong into advancing Germans near Saint-Julien. With the help of accurate Canadian artillery support, the British forces routed the Germans, who hastily evacuated the town, fearing that they were up against a major Allied advance. They withdrew to higher ground to the north.

Turner was still determined to hold the GHQ line. At 7 pm, he ordered the 1st Royal Irish Regiment and two battalions from the York and Durham Brigade to fall back, thus reopening the very gap they had just closed. General Alderson finally caught on to Turner’s mistaken interpretation of the order to “hold your line,” but by now it was too dark to attempt to retake the lost ground. Both sides settled in for the night. The British and Canadians, though outnumbered three-to-one, still held on, but Currie’s precarious position on Gravenstafel Ridge, with his left flank in the air, seemed likely to fall at first light. Other Canadian defensive positions were not much better off.

Persuaded by the French—who mistakenly thought the Germans were outnumbered—to mount a counterattack, the British and Canadians agreed to attack at 3:30 am. Their intention was to recapture Saint-Julien and “driv[e] the enemy in that neighborhood as far north as possible.” Brig. Gen. Charles Hull, commanding the British 10th Brigade, was to lead the assault. The ensuing attack on the morning of the 25th was an abysmal failure. To begin with, the attack was rescheduled for an hour later, but the supporting artillery was unaware of the delay and opened up at the original time, thus alerting the Germans to the planned assault and announcing that Saint-Julien was no longer occupied by Allied troops. The Germans immediately headed into the empty town. Further, only five British battalions were slated to take part in the charge instead of the previously planned force of 15 combined British and Canadian battalions.

It was not until 5:30 am that the chosen battalions moved into position. Each battalion then attacked on its own, piecemeal-style, and was slaughtered by German machine guns. Lieutenant Walter Critchley of the Canadian 10th Battalion watching the attack later commented, “I have never seen such a slaughter in my life … they were lined up in a long line, straight up[,] and the Hun opened up on them with machine guns. They were just raked down. It was pathetic.” By 7 am, the misbegotten attack was over, at the cost of 2,419 dead and wounded Tommies. The bloodied remnants of the 10th Brigade fell back to the Canadian lines and filled in the gaps.

The Canadians, however, still remained vulnerable. German artillery pounded away while its infantry attacked both the British 28th Division on the right and the Canadian 1st Division on the left. The attacks were beaten back, but the Germans did manage to hold on to a 60-yard stretch of Allied trench. The Canadians were barely hanging on. Through yet another misunderstanding, Alderson believed that Gravenstafel Ridge had fallen. Therefore, instead of ordering Snow to send much-needed reinforcements to the ridge, he ordered the English general to set up a second line half a mile behind the ridge to stop the supposedly advancing Germans. Once more the Canadians were on their own.

Thousands of German troops then made another all-out assault on the Allied position in front of the ridge. The defenders fought back valiantly, but were overpowered by sheer numbers. The Canadians still clung to the ridge itself, but the situation was deteriorating by the minute. Currie and his battalion commanders reluctantly decided to abandon the ridge. Under cover of darkness the Canadians withdrew from the ridge and fell back to the new British line. Unfortunately, the British were not there. Fearing another attack on his division, Snow had simply refused to move. Meanwhile, the British troops on Gravenstafel Ridge refused to withdraw without written orders. Once again left in the lurch, the Canadians decided to turn around and rejoin their British comrades on the ridge.

Relief finally came for the beleaguered Canadians the next morning when they were ordered out of the line. Rest and hot food awaited them behind the lines, while fresh British troops moved in and took over their positions. It had been a bloody four-day baptism of fire for the Canadian 1st Division.

Half its men, some 6,036, were casualties. Nevertheless, in its first battle the untested division had helped stave off a major Allied disaster. Fighting would continue for the Ypres Salient for another month, but the immediate threat of a decisive German breakthrough had been thwarted. British Field Marshal Sir John French realized what a close call it had been, and he paid full tribute to his North American cousins. “The Canadians,” he wrote, “held their ground with a magnificent display of tenacity and courage; and it is not too much to say that the bearing and conduct of these splendid troops averted a disaster which might have been attended with the most serious consequences.” The Canadians themselves were more modest about their exploits. Private George Patrick of the 2nd Battalion commented, “No one had any idea of getting out. We didn’t know enough about it to know that we were licked. We went in there and were going to stay there, and that was that.”

 Suggested Reading: 

Trial By Gas By George Cassar 

Hell in Flanders Fields: Canadians at the Second Battle of Ypres By George Cassar 

Magnificent but Not War: The Second Battle of Ypres By John Dixon

Suggested Viewing: 

 Baptism By Fire: Canadians At The Second Battle Of Ypres 1915


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Battle Of Cedar Mountain -- August 9th, 1862 - Rally, Brave Men And Press Fordward!!!!

Following the completion of Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s unsuccessful Peninsula campaign earlier in the month, General Robert E. Lee sent Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson north from Richmond with two divisions on July 16, 1862. Jackson arrived in Gordonsville three days later. On July 29, his army was reinforced by Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s “Light Division.” The reinforcements doubled Jackson’s command and gave him the strength necessary to overwhelm any one of the three Federal corps of the newly formed Army of Virginia under Maj. Gen. John Pope, which was spread along a wide arc from Fredricksburg to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Pope, who had assumed command of the Army of Virginia on June 27, had been given the complex task of uniting three previously independent commands scattered widely over the northern half of the state into a single army. He ordered Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel’s I Corps to Sperryville, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’s II Corps to Little Washington, and one division of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell’s III Corps to Waterloo Bridge, leaving his other division at Fredricksburg to guard the lower Rappahannock River.

In preparation for a raid on the vital railroad hub of Gordonsville, where the Virginia Central Railroad connected the Confederate capital of Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley and to Tennessee, Pope ordered Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford’s brigade south to Culpeper to support Federal cavalry massing for the raid. But when the Federals learned that Jackson was advancing from Richmond with a force of unknown size, their mission changed abruptly from raiding to reconnaissance. Pope needed information quickly about the size of Jackson’s force.

The addition of Hill’s Light Division to his independent command gave Jackson the ability to overwhelm a portion of Pope’s army, just as he had done to his foe in the Shenandoah Valley a couple of months earlier, if he could strike the enemy before support could arrive. To do this, Jackson hoped to reach Culpeper before the Federals could secure it in order to control its vital road network. His first target would be Banks, who Jackson learned from his scouts recently had been ordered to Culpeper by Pope.

On August 7, Jackson delivered orders of his own to his three divisions to march eight miles from Gordonsville to the vicinity of Orange Court House. From there, he hoped to reach Culpeper the following day. When Federal scouts reported the movement to Pope, the Union general ordered Sigel’s corps and the rest of Banks’s corps to converge on Culpeper. Banks arrived on August 8, but Sigel did not arrive until the following day.

With the arrival of Hill’s division, Jackson had under his command about 24,000 men in three divisions. Hill’s 12,000-strong Light Division comprised six brigades, while Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell’s division and Jackson’s division, under Brig. Gen. Charles Winder, had 7,000 and 4,000 men, respectively. In addition, Jackson had Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson’s 1,000-strong cavalry brigade.

The army was considerably larger than the one Jackson had commanded in the Shenandoah Valley earlier in the year. It would prove difficult for Jackson to manage, both on the march and on the field of battle. The campaign got off to a poor start when Jackson’s famous “foot cavalry” managed to march only a half dozen miles on August 8—not the 20 miles a day for which it was noted. Winder, who had been sick with a fever and under orders to rest, received Jackson’s permission to return to his command for the pending battle.

The August sun baked the Southerners as they marched north and showed no mercy to the troops, regardless of rank or branch of service. The narrow road was jammed with ammunition wagons, artillery, and ambulances. Thick clouds of dust filled the air, clogging men’s throats and eyes. Jackson rode with his cap pulled down to keep the sun from his eyes. To those who rode past him, he seemed preoccupied, as well he might be. The night before, Union cavalry had raided his bivouac, setting off a firestorm of musket fire at 3 in the morning. Jackson fretted constantly about the 1,200 wagons the army had rumbling along in its train. When his personal surgeon, Hunter McGuire, asked Jackson if he expected a battle that day, Jackson flashed the hint of a smile. “Banks is on our front, and he is generally willing to fight,” said Jackson, adding in an aside, “and he generally gets whipped.” Then he fell silent again.

While the Confederate commander fretted, the enemy began to move. Samuel Crawford, a brigadier with a solid record that stretched back to the opening days of the war, left Culpeper at noon on August 8, taking with him two batteries to support the Federal cavalry operating south of the town. On August 9, the rest of Banks’s corps, roughly 8,000 men, joined Crawford on the high ground between the two branches of Cedar Run. The five Federal brigades deployed in line of battle along a two-mile front to await the Confederate attack.

Banks, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and governor of Massachusetts, was considered by his contemporaries to be an aggressive general. He had been soundly whipped a few months before by Jackson in the northern Shenandoah Valley, and he was looking to even the score. Despite Pope’s warning to wait for reinforcements, Banks had no intention of staying on the defensive if an opportunity should present itself to strike Jackson a hard blow. The fact that he had stationed his troops in line of battle astride the Culpeper Road was intended as a direct challenge to his foe. That was not at all what Pope had in mind, but Banks had a mind of his own.

The Confederate vanguard, composed of the three brigades of Ewell’s division, arrived at Cedar Mountain (also called Slaughter’s Mountain, after Revolutionary War captain Phillip Slaughter) in the early afternoon, but it would be several hours before the Confederates were deployed in an effective line of battle. Brig. Gen. Jubal Early deployed his Confederate brigade in the fields of the Crittenden farm south of the Culpeper Road. Early pushed out a skirmish line, accompanied by a brace of 12-pounder cannons, and sent the Union pickets flying. He headed toward the intersection of Culpeper Road and Madison Court House Road, just west of the mountain.

Federal artillery opened up on his troops from Mitchell’s Station Road, which ran perpendicular to the Culpeper Road. The feisty Early, still aching from a shoulder wound he had suffered at Fort Magruder a few weeks earlier, would have to fight alone while Ewell took the other two brigades of his division along the base of Cedar Mountain. The two brigades traveled undetected on a road through the woods. Their objective was to seize the high ground at the eastern end of the mountain. When Ewell reached the eastern edge of the mountain, he placed parts of two batteries on the commanding hill.

Because the units were nearly a mile apart, Early would have to rely on his own wits and the two other Confederate divisions for support. He personally led a reconnaissance party that located an old farm lane that diverged from the main road and spilled out into the woods directly onto the farmland where the Union cavalry was forming. As Early’s men crept through the woods, Confederate artillery opened up on the unseen Federals who lay beyond the rolling farmland. The Federals responded with a splendid salvo of counterfire that showered the choleric Early with dust. By 3 pm, Early was in position and awaiting the deployment of Jackson’s division, under Winder.

Before deploying his infantry, Winder placed his batteries just south of the Culpeper Road, near the gate that marked the entrance to the Crittenden farm. As his brigades arrived on the battlefield, Winder sent them forward one at a time. First, he sent Colonel Thomas Garnett’s brigade into the woods bordering a large wheat field immediately north of the Culpeper Road. Next, Winder directed Brig. Gen. William Taliaferro’s amalgamated Virginia and Alabama brigade south of the turnpike to support Early’s left flank. Lastly, he ordered Colonel Charles Ronald’s brigade, the Stonewall Brigade of First Manassas fame, through the woods north of the road to take up positions on Garnett’s left flank.

While Garnett and Taliaferro executed their orders admirably, Ronald wound up far beyond and behind Garnett’s left flank. The Stonewall Brigade came to a halt in a tree line on the western end of a smaller field north of the one upon which Garnett was positioned. The “brushy field,” as it is referred to in contemporary accounts, was not where Winder had wanted the unit placed. Ronald’s failure to effectively carry out Winder’s orders nearly cost the Confederates the battle almost before it started.

Banks deployed Brig. Gen. Christopher Auger’s division, comprising three brigades, south of the Culpeper Road, and Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams’s division, consisting of two brigades, north of the road. The Federal right flank overlapped the Confederate left flank by nearly 300 yards. Both Jackson and Winder were unaware that the wooded ground north of the Culpeper Road presented a golden opportunity to the Federals to outflank the Confederates if they could attack before Jackson was able to extend his line.

As Jackson awaited the arrival of Hill’s division before committing himself to battle, the two opposing sides engaged in a ferocious artillery duel. Beginning at about 4 pm, the Union and Confederate gunners dueled for nearly two hours across open ground from 900 yards apart. Unlike the Federal guns, which were concentrated near the intersection of the Culpeper Road and Mitchell’s Station Road, the Confederates had deployed their guns in four separate positions between the Culpeper Road and Cedar Mountain. The placement of the Southern guns in clusters allowed them to bring a converging fire on the Federal batteries that was so effective the Northerners had to withdraw their guns more than once during the duel. Still, the Federal guns slowed the pace at which the Confederate infantry could deploy and substantially delayed Jackson’s advance.

Once the artillery contest was in full swing, the ailing Winder became engrossed in the exchange to the detriment of his division. At one point, he ordered Garnett to prepare to charge across the open ground in front of Early to seize the Federal battery he believed was unprotected. To carry out these orders, Garnett was forced to face two of his regiments south along the Culpeper Road, rather than east toward the Federal infantry on the opposite side of the wheat field. This further weakened the Confederate left flank. Although he complied with the order, Garnett sent word back to Winder that the enemy guns could not be taken because they were supported by both infantry and cavalry. Instead of sorting out the problem, Winder ordered Garnett to keep the regiments aligned as instructed, and he turned his attention back to the artillery contest.

While Winder was directing the artillery fire near the Crittenden gate, a shell came whistling down from one of the Federal batteries and struck him on the left side, nearly tearing off his arm at the elbow. The general quivered and dropped to the ground with what was described as “a tremendous hole in his side.” A surgeon examined his wounds and deemed them fatal. Winder was carried on a stretcher to the rear, where he died less than two hours later. Jackson, hearing of the incident, raised his arm and bowed his head for a moment of silent prayer.

The wounding of Winder at 4:45 pm meant that Taliaferro would now assume command of Winder’s division. The task that Taliaferro inherited was a difficult one. Neither Winder nor Jackson had apprised him of their orders. What was more, Taliaferro began receiving reports that Federal troops were massing opposite the Confederate left flank. He personally inspected his left on horseback, but found no evidence of an impending attack. Jackson, who was devoting most of his time to the situation south of the Culpeper Road, also inspected the left flank. Before riding away, Jackson told Garnett to watch his left flank closely and, if necessary, request support from Taliaferro.

While the Confederates were busy correcting the kinks in their deployment, the Federals south of the Culpeper Road attacked. Leaving behind Green’s understrength brigade, Auger sent Brig. Gen. John Geary’s and Brig. Gen. Henry Prince’s brigades forward at 5:45 pm against the Confederate right flank. Banks watched intently from just north of the Culpeper Road as his blue ranks were swallowed up by the mature corn growing on the Crittenden farm. Across the field, Jackson sat atop his horse next to Taliaferro’s position. As the Federals approached, Jackson rose in his saddle and watched closely to see how his soldiers would meet the enemy attack.

The forces facing each other on the Crittenden farm were nearly equal. The Federals fielded 10 regiments and one battalion; the Confederates matched the attackers with nine regiments and a battalion. Geary’s brigade advanced on the right toward Taliaferro, while Prince’s brigade advanced on the left toward Early. Auger was struck in the back by a bullet in the first few minutes of the attack and carried to the rear. Geary advanced first with two regiments forward and another two regiments in reserve. Prince’s brigade attacked in the same style.

As the fighting grew in intensity, Early sent word to Jackson that he needed reinforcements quickly in order to hold back the Federals. In response to the Federal advance, Ewell’s guns on Cedar Mountain switched their attention from the enemy artillery to the Federal infantry on the plain below. When Early’s messenger arrived, Jackson sent a courier to Hill urging him to hurry forward with his troops. Help was not far away. Edward Thomas’s brigade had been marching at the double quick for the last mile of their 10-mile march that day. When the Georgians came pounding up the Culpeper Road, Jackson rode to meet them, hailing them as they arrived by waving his cap above his head. The Georgians responded with a loud cheer before moving to Early’s support.

Just when Jackson had stabilized his right, his left became unglued. From his position near Early’s brigade, Jackson’s attention was drawn to loud rolls of musketry to the north. He tried to see what was unfolding through his field glasses, but his line of sight was blocked by both the rolling terrain and thick woods. When a courier told him his left had been turned, Jackson spurred his horse and galloped back up the Confederate line. Fearing the worst, he began ordering to the rear the rifled artillery near the gate where the farm road exited the Culpeper Road.

Meanwhile, Crawford’s Federal brigade lay concealed for most of the hot August afternoon in the woods along the banks of Cedar Run, where it could not be seen by the enemy units forming up on the Confederate left. Just before dusk, when the length of the men’s shadows on the ground exceeded their height, some 1,500 Union troops emerged from the woods and prepared to advance across a stubbled wheat field to engage their foe. They dressed ranks, crossed a fence, and with a loud cheer rushed downhill toward the Confederate line. To the Virginians of Garnett’s brigade, which occupied a nearly identical wood on the opposite side of the wheat field, the attacking blue line seemed to extend indefinitely in both directions.

Before Crawford’s brigade had advanced halfway toward its objective, the first of several volleys erupted from Garnett’s Confederates. The musket fire soon became one continuous roar, like a never-ending peal of thunder. The Federals continued to advance despite the storm of lead, pausing briefly at the tree line before closing with their enemy. Soldiers swung their rifles like clubs and thrust at each other with bayonets. Although the Confederates occupied what appeared to be a strong position along a fence line, the Union soldiers prevailed.

Crawford’s brigade had the good fortune of finding the Confederate left flank in the air. The Stonewall Brigade was farther to the left, but it had not yet advanced to the wheat field. Worse yet, two of Garnett’s regiments were not even facing in the direction of the attack. The 1st Battalion of Garnett’s brigade reacted to the Federal attack like a man bitten by a rattlesnake. Panic spread from one soldier to the next.

Dozens fell alongside the fence in a matter of minutes. In no time, the Federals were over the fence and chasing their enemy through the woods. A number of the soldiers in the 1st Battalion simply dropped their rifles and fled without looking back. The Federals changed front to the east and rolled down the line in the direction of the 42nd and 48th Virginia Regiments. To stem the blue tide, these units would have to hold, and the Confederate command would have to rush reinforcements to the spot. Otherwise, the day would belong to the Federals.

By taking Garnett’s brigade in the flank, Crawford was able to multiply the effect of his attack manyfold over a frontal attack. His objective had been the guns near the Crittenden gate that Jackson had so wisely sent to the rear. Even though the guns were now safe, Jackson’s entire line was slowly unraveling. Jackson wrote after the battle that the Federals “fell with great vigor” on his left flank. Unless he stabilized it, his army was on the verge of a major disaster.

The Federals steadily drove their enemy before them. The 28th New York advanced on the right, while the 5th Connecticut advanced on the left. Interspersed with these regiments were elements of the 46th Pennsylvania. While the Confederate 1st Battalion had fled without much of a fight, the 42nd Regiment stood its ground until fire from both the front and rear forced it to retreat as well. The 21st Virginia and 48th Virginia, which were facing south along the Culpeper Road, were the unluckiest of all. They did not discern what was happening until some of their numbers were shot in the back. Still, they tried valiantly to fend off the attack. The two sides fought hand to hand in the thick woods. Soon, Garnett’s entire brigade was routed.

When the Stonewall Brigade finally advanced, it caught the rear elements of Crawford’s attack in the flank. Two regiments of the Stonewall Brigade formed along the fence line bordering the wheat field across which Crawford attacked, while the remaining three regiments advanced through the brushy field next to it. These three regiments wheeled to change front before firing into the 3rd Wisconsin, which had been detached from Brig. Gen. George Gordon’s brigade and assigned to Crawford.

Crawford’s troops poured out of the woods, crossed the Culpeper Road, and charged Talaiferro’s brigade. They quickly routed two green Alabama regiments on Taliaferro’s left flank. The other regiments fell back but continued fighting. Early, who had just finished placing Thomas’s Brigade on his far right flank, galloped over a ridge and found half his brigade gone. The Confederate line stabilized temporarily when four well-served guns of the Middlesex Artillery under the command of Captain Willie Pegram fired canister at point-blank range into the Yankee tide. Shortly afterward, Crawford’s attack ran out of steam. Meanwhile, Jackson found Hill and ordered him to deploy the rest of his division immediately. The troops of Brig. Gen. Lawrence Branch advanced first and were soon followed by those of Brig. Gen. James Archer.

Leaving Hill to do as he had been told, Jackson rode to the Crittenden gate, where he found large numbers of men from Winder’s division seeking protection in the woods south of the Crittenden gate. Oblivious to personal danger, Jackson rode into the mass as bullets flew around him. In an effort to rally the men, Jackson tried to draw his sword, but found it rusted in its scabbard. He unhooked it from his belt and waved the scabbard in an effort to get his men to reform. Thinking that this was not enough, he snatched a Confederate battle flag and began beseeching the men to fight with his scabbard in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other. “Jackson is with you!” he cried. “Rally, brave men, and press forward! Your general will lead you! Jackson will lead you! Follow me!” When only a few dozen men stopped, he yelled: “Rally men! Remember Winder! Forward, men, forward!” Jackson was able to form parts of Garnett’s and Taliaferro’s brigades into a new line. At that point, Taliafferro rode over to Jackson and implored him to retire. “Good, good,” Jackson said in his usual taciturn manner, before riding to the rear.

Banks failed to follow up Crawford’s attack with reinforcements, even though Gordon’s brigade, the other brigade in Williams’s division, had not yet been committed to the battle. Without support, the survivors of Crawford’s attack had no choice but to retreat along their line of attack. There followed a series of inept moves by Banks and his subordinates. The first was the advance of the 10th Maine.

The regiment, which had been detached from Crawford’s brigade to guard a Federal battery, was sent alone into the wheat field at about 6:30 pm, where it was sacrificed to no clear advantage. Next, Banks unnecessarily sacrificed the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry to cover the withdrawal of his artillery, losing 93 horsemen in the futile charge.

At dusk, Gordon’s brigade arrived opposite Archer, but it was too late to help Crawford. Gordon’s men had marched nearly a mile to the battle at the double-quick. Their effectiveness was greatly reduced by the difficulty they had telling friend from foe in the wheat field in the gathering darkness. As Gordon’s men were deploying, the men of the Stonewall Brigade descended on Crawford’s brigade as it limped back across the wheat field. The 5th Virginia charged across the open ground and plucked from the retreating troops the flags of the 5th Connecticut and 28th New York. When Brig. Gen. Dorsey Pender’s brigade, another of Hill’s fresh brigades, joined Branch and Archer on the Confederate left flank, Gordon’s brigade found itself in great peril.

Jackson issued orders directly to both Pender and Branch. He sent Pender through the woods behind the Confederate left flank and then turned east toward the Federals. He ordered Branch to incline right across the Culpeper Road to strike the Federals south of the road. While Branch was crossing the lane, Archer launched a frontal assault on Gordon. Archer’s men wavered midway to their objective. The brigadier general noted in his battle report that his command “was exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy, who, from their position in the woods, was comparatively safe.” Nevertheless, he rallied his troops in the open field and ordered them a bayonet charge against the Union position.

The effect of Archer’s attack was vividly described in Gordon’s battle report: “Companies were without officers, officers and men were falling in every direction from the fire of an enemy which largely outnumbered my brigade.” The brigade held its ground until Pender struck. Under cover of the woods, Pender was able to approach to within a few dozen yards of the enemy. “I met the enemy, repulsing him with heavy loss in almost the first round,” Pender wrote. The combined force of Archer and Pender was more than Gordon’s brigade could stand. With Pender in his flank and rear, Gordon ordered a general withdrawal. “The enemy poured a destructive fire in this new direction. It was too evident the spot that had witnessed the destruction of one brigade would soon in a few minutes be the grave of mine,” Gordon wrote.

The Federals were not only being pressed hard on their right and center but also on their left by Ewell’s descent from Cedar Mountain. The presence of the Confederates on the Federal left flank was enough to create a near stampede among the Union troops in that sector. Artillery crews hastily limbered up their guns and moved them north in the direction of Culpeper. They were followed by Brig. Gen. George Greene’s brigade of Christopher C. Augur’s division, which had been held in reserve throughout the battle. By sunset, eight Confederate brigades had entered the cornfield, leaving just Pender and Archer north of the Culpeper Road.

As the moon rose in the night sky, Jackson pushed two reserve brigades of Hill’s Division and substantial artillery up the road toward Culpeper. But Pope had already arrived on the battlefield and constructed a strong new line with fresh troops from Maj. Gen. James Ricketts’ division of McDowell’s corps. After a “reconnaissance by artillery” proved that the Federals held the road in strength, Jackson broke off his advance near midnight. After drinking a glass of buttermilk to calm his stomach, Jackson stretched out on a cloak strewn across the ground and immediately fell asleep.
Jackson waited for two more days after the battle to see if Pope would attack him.

When he did not, Jackson withdrew to Gordonsville. The Union lost about 2,400 men at Cedar Mountain, while the Confederates lost close to 1,400. Both Jackson and Banks were satisfied with the performance of their troops on the battlefield. Jackson had achieved a tactical victory by driving the Federals from the battlefield, but he had suffered a strategic defeat by failing to capture Culpeper and annihilate Banks when he had the chance. But even though Pope had won a strategic victory, Jackson had effectively snatched the initiative from him at Cedar Mountain, and Pope would not regain it again during the Second Manassas campaign that followed less than three weeks later.

Suggested Reading: 

Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain By Robert Krick

Such Troops as These: The Genius and Leadership of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson By Bevin Alexander 

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson By S.c Gwynne 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Loss Of The USS Astoria During The Battle Of Savo Island -- August 8th & 9th, 1942 - It Isn't Good

Admiral Ernest King could not believe what he was reading. The graying 63-year-old chief of U.S. naval operations had been awoken from his sleep. An overdue message from the Guadalcanal battle zone had finally arrived at his headquarters during the early morning hours of August 12, 1942.

In showing King the memo, Captain George Russell simply said, “It isn’t good.” A naval battle had taken place off Savo Island near Guadalcanal. The American warships guarding the approaches to the landing zone on the island’s beaches had been surprised at night by a Japanese naval force. Four Allied heavy cruisers had been sunk. The nearby troop transports, still unloading precious supplies, were not harmed. However, they were being pulled back due to the imminent threat of additional attacks.

King would later consider the Savo Island battle the low point of the war. He said, “That, as far as I am concerned, was the blackest day of the war. The whole future then became unpredictable.” The last of the four cruisers to go down was the USS Astoria (CA-34).

Launched at the Puget Sound Navy Yard on December 16, 1933, the Astoria was the second ship of the New Orleans class of heavy cruisers. Among the last group of cruisers designed to be within the guidelines of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, the New Orleans class emphasized protection.

Although slightly smaller than previous classes of “treaty cruisers,” the New Orleans ships featured thicker belts of side armor, increased protection around the magazine areas, and stronger deck armor.

The Astoria as built had a main battery of nine 8-inch guns mounted in three turrets. Secondary armament consisted of eight 5-inch single-mount guns placed roughly amidships, four to a side, and eight machine guns. Wartime brought the addition of an assortment of antiaircraft guns mounted at various points around the ship.

The Astoria was no stranger to action prior to her participation in the Guadalcanal operation. She began the war cruising with the carrier Lexington on a mission to deliver planes to Midway Island.

The task force was located about 420 miles southeast of Midway when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Subsequent months saw the Astoria involved primarily in carrier escort duties. She participated in the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway. During the latter battle, she briefly served as the flagship for Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher after the carrier Yorktown was abandoned. By late summer the Astoria was under the command of Captain William Garrett Greenman. The 53-year-old Greenman had taken over as the commanding officer of the cruiser on June 14, 1942.

Early August meant an exhausting stretch of long and difficult days for the crewmen aboard the Astoria. Since departing Koro Island in the Fijis on July 31, the crew had been in an almost constant state of readiness. The United States Navy was now on the offensive in the eight- month-old war with Japan, and the Astoria was in the thick of it. Since the landing of the Marines near Lunga Point on Guadalcanal and the smaller nearby island of Tulagi on the morning of August 7, the Astoria had helped fight off two Japanese air attacks and stood guard duty covering the approaches to the landing zone. More of the same routine was expected in the days to come.

Upon the initial approach to Guadalcanal, the Astoria had operated with her sister ships Vincennes and Quincy as part of a fire support group designated Task Group 62.3. When the fire support role ended, the cruisers became part of a larger screening group. Under the command of British Rear Admiral V.A. Crutchley aboard the cruiser Australia, the operations of the screening group centered on protecting the transport ships. Positioned off the landing zone, these were the ships that carried the Marines, equipment, and supplies that made up the invasion force. Their survival was vital to the success of the Guadalcanal operation.

During daylight hours the cruisers took up antiaircraft positions in close proximity to the transports. In the evening, the screening group guarded the sea approaches to the landing zone against the possibility of an attack by Japanese surface forces. To cover all possible points of entry to the area, Crutchley divided his screening force cruisers into three main groups; each was originally designated a name based on the lead cruiser of the formation.

Patrolling south and east of Savo Island, the Australia group comprised the heavy cruisers Australia, Canberra, and Chicago. The Australia group later became known as the south group of cruisers. The Vincennes group, later known as the north group, contained the Astoria and Quincy in addition to the name ship. Under the command of Captain Fredrick L. Riefkohl of the Vincennes, this group covered the east to west distance between Savo Island and Florida Island. Covering the eastern approaches to the landing zone were the light cruisers San Juan and Hobart. The latter area was deemed by Allied commanders as the least likely avenue for a Japanese surface attack. Each cruiser group was screened by two destroyers with additional radar-equipped picket destroyers stationed beyond the approaches.

The night of August 8 began much like the previous night. At twilight the Astoria moved out of her daytime antiaircraft position and into her preassigned evening patrol area as part of the north group of cruisers. She took up position as the last ship in the column of cruisers about 600 yards directly behind the Quincy. The destroyer Helm was positioned 1,500 yards off the port bow of the lead cruiser, Vincennes. The destroyer Wilson occupied a similar position off the lead cruiser’s starboard bow.
The group patrolled the perimeter of a box that was roughly five miles per side. Turning 90 degrees in column to the right every 30 minutes, the group cruised at a speed of 10 knots, making the appropriate adjustments in time and speed to execute the corner turns as scheduled. Just before midnight rain squalls over Savo Island began to slowly move to the southeast, ultimately ending up between the north and south groups of patrolling cruisers.

The Astoria stood at condition of readiness two. Under this arrangement, normally used when the possibility of a surprise attack existed, the crew stood alternate watches of four hours’ duration. Two guns in each of the cruiser’s three 8-inch main turrets were manned. All nine guns were loaded with shells but were not primed. Lookouts scanned the horizon for enemy submarines, which were reported to be operating in the area. Captain Greenman was aware that a group of Japanese surface ships had been sighted earlier in the day some 400 miles away in the vicinity of Bougainville Island.

Surely the picket destroyers or the south group of cruisers would sound an early alarm if and when the enemy surface ships arrived in the area.

The stroke of midnight ushered in the start of a new day—Sunday, August 9, 1942. The 12 to 4 am mid-watch had just begun aboard the Astoria. Men coming on watch settled into their positions across the cruiser. Weary sailors coming off watch set out for a brief four hours of rest before rotating back on duty.

Among those coming off watch was Seaman 2nd Class Norman Miller. He went below for a quick shower. Unable to sleep in his bunk, he decided to go topside. This was not unusual given the hot conditions that existed below deck. He ended up lying down on some life jackets near the 20mm guns that were located just above turret number three.

Lieutenant Commander J.R. Topper had begun his watch on the bridge as the supervisory officer of the deck just prior to midnight. A few minutes later Lieutenant (j.g.) N.A. Burkey, Jr., assumed his watch as officer of the deck. Among other sailors taking up their watch positions on the bridge were Quartermaster 2nd Class Royal Radke and Seaman 2nd Class Don Yeamans. Aboard the Astoria since June 1941, Yeamans was part of the quartermaster crew. Radke would serve as the lead quartermaster for the watch. Captain Greenman retired, fully dressed, to his emergency cabin located immediately adjacent to the pilot house.

Above the bridge, Seaman 1st Class Lynn Hager arrived for his watch at sky control. He put on his headset and tuned into the JV communications circuit. His first order of business was to test communications to the bridge. Everything appeared to be working properly. From the bridge came the following request: “Keep a sharp lookout on our own formation and all around.” He then moved over to his lookout station on the starboard side next to the 1.1-inch gun director, adjusted his binoculars, and began to search the horizon.

Deep below the main deck, Ralph Boone began his watch in the after engine room. The Machinist Mate 2nd Class had been aboard the Astoria since May 1940. He knew the ship well and soon went about his duties of conducting routine maintenance. In all parts of the ship, the men on watch went about their duties unaware that disaster lay less than two hours ahead.

The events that would lead to disaster for the men of the Astoria began to take shape shortly after the Japanese had learned of the American landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi. At about 2:30 pm on August 7, the Japanese heavy cruiser Chokai sortied from Simpson Harbor, Rabaul. Aboard was Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, the commander of the newly formed Eighth Fleet. From the bridge of his flagship, Mikawa would personally lead an audacious counterattack. The bold plan called for a surprise night attack against American shipping in the Guadalcanal area about 675 miles southeast of Rabaul.

Mikawa had assembled a powerful force of five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a single destroyer. The attack force would enter the Guadalcanal area on the south side of Savo Island and move east to attack American shipping before departing the area by traveling north between Florida and Savo Islands. The journey south from Rabaul would take the Japanese force to the east of Bougainville and then southeast through a narrow passage in the Central Solomons known as “The Slot” that led directly to Guadalcanal. By the afternoon of August 8, the force had passed to the northeast of New Georgia on its final approach to Guadalcanal.

With scout planes launched in advance to reconnoiter the Guadalcanal area, the Japanese approached Savo Island at a high rate of speed. The scout planes reported the approximate positions of the two Allied cruiser forces positioned around Savo Island as well as the disposition of the transports. Just after 1 am on August 9, the force passed undetected near the destroyer USS Blue stationed northwest of Savo Island. Both radar and lookouts failed to spot the Japanese ships as they moved through the south passage around Savo and directly toward the south cruiser force. By this time Admiral Crutchley had already departed the area with the Australia for an urgent meeting of commanders off the landing zone.

In a series of events that occurred in rapid succession, the Japanese force approached and surprised the unsuspecting cruisers on patrol southeast of Savo Island. Among the first American ships to sight the approaching Japanese was the destroyer Patterson. She immediately sent an emergency message over TBS (Talk Between Ships) radio, “Warning! Warning! Strange Ships Entering Harbor!” It was 1:46 am. Almost immediately, Japanese float planes dropped bright flares in the vicinity of the transports off Lunga Point, illuminating the cruisers Canberra and Chicago.

Then, the shooting started. Hit 24 times in less than five minutes, the Canberra was quickly turned into a blazing inferno. The Chicago, hit by a torpedo in the bow, failed to make contact with the Japanese cruisers as they sped past. Captain Howard Bode of the Chicago, left in charge of the south force by Crutchley, failed to send out a warning to Captain Riefkohl aboard the Vincennes.

At the approximate time of the Patterson’s warning message, Astoria’s Officer of the Deck Burkey was acknowledging a course change from the Vincennes over TBS radio. The cruiser group was turning slightly off schedule. As a result, the Patterson’s warning message was not received. A few minutes later Lt. Cmdr. Topper felt what he thought was a distant underwater explosion. Although he attributed it to a destroyer dropping depth charges, the noise was most likely torpedoes from the Japanese battle with the southern cruisers. Captain Greenman was not notified and remained asleep in his emergency cabin.

Lieutenant Topper was not the only one to hear underwater noises. In the after engine room, Machinist Mate Boone was in the process of checking the shaft alleys. The task, considered routine maintenance, was done to ensure that the shafts were properly turning. Boone suddenly heard strange noises in the water. He thought that there were problems with the shafts and immediately reported the sounds to the chief machinist mate who was in charge of the engine room. The chief promptly told him to check the shafts again.

At sky control, Seaman 1st Class Hager heard the distant sound of an airplane. Other lookouts soon reported hearing planes overhead. Hager twice reported this information to the bridge, and the latter report occurred at about 1:30 am. Lieutenant Arthur McLaughlin, the officer in charge of the six-man watch on duty at sky control, ordered sky forward and sky aft to keep a sharp lookout.

Upon hearing the reports of planes overhead, Topper immediately went to the starboard side of the bridge. Listening intently he could hear only the sound of the blowers that were located right behind turret one. He then went to the starboard window of the pilot house and looked forward and to the right. Nothing seemed amiss with the other ships in the formation.

The first indication that something was wrong appeared a short time later. Lynn Hager sighted a string of four or five flares from his post at sky control. He estimated the distance was 5,000 yards from the Astoria. A relative bearing of 180 degrees put the flares off the Astoria’s stern. Hager believed that the flares had been dropped from planes, and he reported his sighting to the bridge. At first the flares did not seem to be burning very well as they hung in the misty atmosphere. However, after lowering a short distance, the flares soon began to burn brightly. Lieutenant McLaughlin ordered Hager to report to the bridge the need to sound general quarters.

At about the time Hager’s report of flares reached the bridge, Topper yelled for Burkey to call the captain and stand by to sound general quarters. He then ran out the portside door of the pilot house and identified a string of four aircraft flares about 5,000 yards off the port quarter. It was about 1:50 am.

The gunnery department sprang into action at the first sight of the flares. Gunnery Officer Lt. Cmdr. William Truesdell, saw the flares just as a lookout reported the sighting of three Japanese cruisers. He immediately ordered all of the remaining main battery guns loaded and then requested the officer of the deck to sound general quarters. Sighting information was already flowing into the main battery plotting room where Lieutenant (j.g.) Dante Marzetta and his men were quickly calculating a firing solution. The enemy cruisers were thought to be 5,500 yards away at a target angle of 315 degrees.

The Japanese cruisers, speeding northwest toward the Vincennes group, had their guns aimed at the American cruisers as early as 1:47 am. Lookouts aboard the Chokai could clearly see that the last ship of the American column, the Astoria, did not have her main battery turrets trained in battle positions. To the Japanese it appeared that the northern force of cruisers would also be surprised. With the command to commence firing given at 1:50 am, the Chokai immediately switched on her searchlight, illuminating the Astoria at a distance of 7,800 yards.

Within seconds the Japanese flagship’s first main battery salvo fell off the Astoria’s port bow, short and to the left. Following the lead of their flagship, other Japanese cruisers similarly opened fire against the Quincy and Yorktown. Less than two minutes later the Chokai’s second main battery salvo fell off the Astoria’s port side.

By this time Gunnery Officer Truesdell had requested permission to open fire. When no reply came from the bridge, he gave the order himself at about 1:53 am. The Astoria suddenly shook from the blast of an eight- or nine-gun salvo. Directed at the Chokai, all shots missed.

Confusion reigned aboard the bridge of the Astoria as the key officers of the watch were initially unaware that enemy cruisers had been sighted. Officer of the Deck Burkey, on the TBS with the Yorktown acknowledging a planned course change, had not carried out Topper’s request to call the captain. Quartermaster Radke observed a distant ship opening fire and immediately pulled the general quarters alarm without having the orders to do so. Noticing the absence of the captain, the junior officer of the deck, Lieutenant (j.g.) John Mullen rushed to get Greenman.

The fourth main battery salvo left the Chokai at about 1:53 am as the cruiser was almost 6,800 yards from the Astoria. Falling about 500 yards short, the salvo was correct in deflection. The Japanese gunners were close to having the Astoria’s number.

With the general alarm sounding, Captain Greenman entered the pilot house just as the main battery fired. Trying to grasp the situation at hand, he noted the flares in the distance and his ship being illuminated by a searchlight. He immediately questioned Topper, “Who sounded the general alarm? Who gave the order to commence firing?” Topper replied that he had not given either order. Concerned that the Astoria was firing on friendly ships, Greenman gave the order to cease fire. Truesdell immediately informed the bridge that he was firing at Japanese cruisers.

The gunnery officer requested urgent permission to resume fire. Captain Greenman looked up to see a salvo straddle the Vincennes off in the distance. Less than a minute later he saw the Chokai’s fourth salvo fall just short of the Astoria. He immediately gave the orders to sound general quarters and open fire. Greenman then ordered the ship to full speed and turned the Astoria slightly to port to better position her in relation to the targets and to keep clear of Quincy’s firing line.

The general quarters alarm sent sailors scurrying about the Astoria heading to their assigned battle stations. Men seemed to be racing in all directions on and around the bridge. Royal Radke stayed on the bridge as lead quartermaster, while Topper went to central station. Don Yeamans was in position on the port side pelorus, an extended point out from the bridge, with his headset tuned into the JV circuit. From his vantage point he observed the confusion on the bridge as the battle started.

He recalled, “Everyone was running around like the devil.” He turned to look out to sea. “I could see something on fire off in the distance.” The flames were likely the burning Canberra, whose men had already endured what the Astoria’s crew was about to experience. Also rushing to his bridge battle station was Ensign Thomas Ferneding. Aboard the Astoria for less than a year, Ferneding served as the cruiser’s signal officer.

At about 1:55 am, the Chokai’s fifth salvo hit the Astoria amidships, scoring at least four direct hits with 8-inch armor-piercing shells. The hits started fires on the boat deck and in the hangar area. The cruiser’s seaplanes, fully fueled in anticipation of an early morning launch, were quickly set aflame. The fires served as a target for Japanese gunners, who no longer needed the aid of searchlights.

The Astoria returned fire with a six-gun salvo. Fired from the two forward turrets, the shells fell short of their intended target. The two forward turrets now reached the limit of their turning radius on the port side and could no longer be brought to bear on the lead Japanese cruiser. The U.S. cruiser could now only return fire with turret three, which had temporarily lost power. A turn would later correct the situation and shift the firing to the starboard side.

Shortly after the Astoria fired her salvo, turret one was hit three times. Most likely coming from the same 8-inch salvo, one shell pierced the face plate while the two remaining shells hit the barbette. All personnel within the turret and barbette were killed. Another turn of the cruiser allowed her only available turret, number two, to fire its two guns.

The Astoria now came under extremely concentrated fire as additional Japanese cruisers directed their guns upon her. During a six-minute stretch beginning at 2 am, the Astoria was hit time after time by shells both large and small. During the onslaught the forward engine room was filled with smoke from a hit above and had to be abandoned. The number one fireroom was hit and all occupants killed.

The main fire risers were severed, cutting off the water supply needed to fight the now raging fires amidships. An 8-inch shell pierced the protective shield around the number eight 5-inch secondary gun on the port side, hitting the ready service ammunition box and blowing a large hole in the deck.

The fire in the hangar area now burned out of control. Most of the secondary 5-inch batteries eventually fell silent, with the majority of their crews killed at their battle stations.

During the hail of gunfire, a direct hit on the chart house killed the Astoria’s navigator, William Guy Eaton. The 42-year-old lieutenant commander was most likely killed instantly. Also felled in the same blast was Chief Quartermaster Leo Brom. The shell had hit just inside Don Yeamans’s position at the port side pelorus. “There was just a steel wall between us,” he recalled of the area. The force of the blast knocked him off his feet and ruptured his eardrums. The next thing he knew, two sailors were helping him up off the deck asking if he was okay.

Ralph Boone never completed his routine maintenance. He was just about to start his second check of the shaft alleys when general quarters sounded. “I grabbed my lifejacket and flashlight,” Boone recalled as he raced to his battle station. At general quarters he would become part of a repair party that assembled in the mess hall. The room was located right above the after engine room.

Shortly after he arrived on station, the mess hall was hit by a Japanese shell. It caused a tremendous explosion and started a fire. Boone was not injured, but others around him were not so fortunate. Another machinist mate, A.L. McCann, was seriously wounded in the foot and ankle. Boone called out for a first aid kit. Ensign Hugh Davis immediately appeared with one in hand.

“I was preparing to put on a tourniquet when another shell hit nearby and destroyed the first aid kit,” said Boone, who decided to carry the wounded man to the after battle dressing area where he could receive better treatment. Passing through the crew quarters, he was stopped by Water Tender 2nd Class W.T. Duffy who had been on the JV phone. Duffy informed Boone that the after battle dressing area had been hit and was on fire. Unsure of what to do next, Boone gently laid McCann down into a bunk bed. He was soon recruited to help plug a shell hole one deck below and never saw the wounded man again.

In his position above the hangar, Seaman 2nd Class Miller had been seriously wounded in both legs. He was just about to fall asleep when the battle started. To escape his precarious position he was lowered by rope to the top of turret number three. Shortly thereafter, he was pushed off the turret and onto the main deck. With a life jacket on, he was lowered by rope into the water. Sometime later he was pulled aboard a life raft and was eventually picked up by a destroyer.

The situation aboard the Astoria was getting worse. Throughout the stricken cruiser, a grisly scene was being repeated. Wounded men were clinging to life. Some had been badly burned, while others were missing limbs. The deck was slick with blood.

The bridge personnel still had control of both steering and engines. Communications lines were still open with central station, which was believed to be intact. There were no major fires reported below the main deck. However, the ship was on fire amidships, turret one was out, and most of the secondary gun batteries had been silenced. At about this time the engineering officer reported to the captain that there was serious trouble in the boiler rooms and that the ship had begun to lose power.

At this juncture the starboard side of the Astoria’s bridge was raked by gunfire, most likely from the heavy cruiser Kako. Among the bridge personnel who went down was the helmsman, Quartermaster 1st Class Houston Williams. Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Julian Young, also wounded from shrapnel, made it to his feet and took the wheel. Just then the Quincy appeared off the port bow, a mass of flames. It appeared as though the ships would collide. Captain Greenman ordered a hard turn to port. Young threw the wheel to the left, and the Astoria passed safely astern of her sister ship.

The gunfire had also seriously wounded Ensign Ferneding in the right leg and heel. “I went to stand up and collapsed,” he would recall of the moment. Ferneding had been standing just inside the pilot house on the starboard side. Yeoman 2nd class Walter Putman propped him up against the bulkhead and gave him a cigarette.

After the hit on the chart house, Quartermaster Radke went about attending to the wounded as best he could. The captain’s orderly soon told him to relieve Young at the helm. The wounded boatswain’s mate was near the point of collapse. Someone needed to have control of the wheel to continue the zigzag movements that the captain had been ordering. Radke took the wheel and discovered that steering control had been lost. Steering was immediately shifted to central station. The speed of the Astoria was now seven knots.

Turret two trained out to the port side to take aim at a searchlight that was once again illuminating the ship. The source of the light was most likely the Japanese cruiser Kinugasa. With the main fire control system down, the turret fired under local control. These would be the last shots fired by the Astoria. The salvo missed the Kinugasa but scored a direct hit on the number one turret of the Chokai. The searchlight was soon extinguished. Enemy gunfire now began to subside. At last it appeared that the battle had passed by the Astoria.

Above the bridge at sky control the situation was deteriorating as enemy gunfire exacted a heavy toll. The last order that Lynn Hager had received over the JV circuit from the bridge was to “Get those damn searchlights.” The communication circuit then went dead. Hager later reported, “Men up on the sky control kept dropping. They were scattered around the decks.” An officer left the position to try to bring some wounded men down to sick bay and returned reporting that the sick bay had been destroyed. Hager took off his useless headset and began to assist the wounded. When sky control was evacuated, he made his way down to the communication deck.

At about 2:15 am, the Astoria lost power. Moments later, Lt. Cmdr. Truesdell, coming down from the director high above, entered the pilot house and informed the captain that the ammunition clipping room directly above the bridge was on fire. With ammunition already starting to explode, he recommended that the bridge be abandoned. To those remaining on the bridge, it appeared that the entire ship aft of the main mast was a mass of flames. Greenman wasted no time ordering the abandonment of the bridge area. He passed word that all able- bodied and wounded men were to assemble at the forecastle, near the front of the ship. The captain himself took up station on the communication deck, just forward of turret two.

Truesdell stayed behind to direct the evacuation of the wounded from the bridge area. He searched all the upper levels to ensure that everyone was out. The able-bodied did the best they could to help the wounded down. Unable to leave under his own power, Ensign Ferneding was lowered to safety after a rope had been tied around him. Don Yeamans climbed down a ladder and made his way toward the front of the ship. Everything seemed to be on fire.

By 3 am, about 400 men, including many wounded, had gathered near the forecastle. Captain Greenman began to assemble the facts as to the status of his ship. It appeared that no serious fires existed below the second deck. The engine rooms were thought to be watertight. The ship had a list of three degrees to port, reason unknown. Large fires in the vicinity of the well deck, secondary gun batteries, and boat deck prevented access to the after part of the ship. Conditions near the stern were not known.

With all water mains ruptured, a bucket brigade was organized to attack the flames. It was hoped that the fires amidships could be beaten back. Sailors worked feverishly fighting the flames but with little success. The decks near the captain’s cabin became so hot that a plan to treat the wounded in that area had to be abandoned. Captain Greenman soon became concerned about the forward magazines. He ordered both the 8-inch and 5-inch magazines flooded. The flooding of the 8-inch magazine appeared to have been successful, but explosions heard in the vicinity of the 5-inch magazine cast doubt as to whether the flooding of that area worked. The captain became increasingly concerned that the 5-inch magazine would detonate.

Coming down from the bridge, Yeamans could feel the main deck getting hot. He knew that he was near one of the magazines but had no idea if it had been flooded. He thought that he heard someone yell “abandon ship” and quickly jumped over the side. It turned out that no such order had been given. He was picked up by the destroyer Bagley after spending three or four hours in the water.

At about 4:45 am, the captain decided it was time to abandon the stricken cruiser. The Bagley was requested by blinker to come alongside the Astoria’s starboard bow. Maneuvering into place, the destroyer nudged her bow right up to the side of the cruiser. Wooden planks, normally used for painting the side of the ship, were put in place to establish a crossing. Once the wounded were safely transferred to the destroyer, able-bodied personnel began to leave the Astoria.

As the Bagley pulled away, a flashing light was seen near the stern of the Astoria. The after portion of the cruiser did not appear to be on fire as first thought. The destroyer acknowledged the signal and then turned her attention to picking up survivors who were scattered about the sea.

Under the direction of Commander Frank Shoup, the cruiser’s executive officer, survivors had assembled near the stern of the ship. Commander Shoup had been forced to abandon his station due to intense fires. About 150 men, including about 30 wounded, gathered near the fantail. The 1.1-inch machine gun mounts on the main deck near the stern and turret three remained manned although the latter had no power. Looking forward, the men aft could see intense fires. They assumed that the entire forward part of the ship was ablaze.

Shoup ordered the wounded evacuated. Four life rafts filled with the most serious cases cast off from the Astoria’s stern in search of a destroyer. They were later picked up by the Wilson.

Commander Shoup then organized a bucket brigade. The group began to work at the starboard entrance to the hangar. Using buckets and 8-inch powder cans, they worked to beat back the flames. Their efforts were aided at about 3:00 am when a light rain began to fall. About an hour later the noise of a gas-powered pump was heard coming from somewhere near the forward part of the ship. Between 4:30 and 5 am, the bucket brigade had worked its way onto the well deck where progress was eventually blocked by an oil fire. About that time, the Bagley was seen departing near the Astoria’s bow and signaled by flashlight.

Taking stock of the situation, Shoup and the chief engineering officer, Lt. Cmdr. John Hayes, came to the same conclusion. The Astoria could be saved. They felt that there was a good possibility that the cruiser could even get under way on her own power. Shortly after daylight the Bagley pulled up close to the Astoria. A series of shell holes was observed just above the waterline on the port side of the cruiser. Captain Greenman soon reboarded his stricken ship.

Commander Shoup told the captain, “I think we can save her.” Greenman immediately formulated a plan of action.

After additional wounded were taken off the cruiser, a salvage crew of about 325 men began the effort to save the Astoria. The group consisted mostly of engineers, signalmen, and other specialists. Most of the officers also participated. The Bagley took off to transfer the remaining survivors to a transport just after 6 am. The effort to save the Astoria was soon in full swing. Three firefighting parties were organized to continue the work against the flames. Another group was assigned the grim task of collecting dead bodies and preparing the corpses for burial at sea.

Lieutenant Commander Topper, also the ship’s damage control officer, led a party below decks in an effort to determine the extent of the damage below the waterline. A 5-inch shell hole was found on the starboard side. It had been plugged and appeared to be holding. Several small fires were found and extinguished. The after magazines appeared to have been properly flooded. The group secured all watertight hatches and openings on the second deck and below.

Engineering personnel also went below to examine the various engine and fire rooms. Some of the rooms proved to be inaccessible due to debris or heat from nearby fires. Engineering Officer Hayes concluded that he could attempt to make steam from fireroom number 4 only. With both the forward and after batteries exhausted and the middle batteries destroyed near the well deck, all electrical battery power was found to be gone.

At about 7 am, the minesweeper Hopkins came to the area to provide assistance. An old destroyer converted to a minesweeper, the vessel transferred a gas-powered pump and hose to the cruiser to aid in the firefighting effort. A power cable was also passed over with the hope that it could be spliced into the Astoria’s system. Captain Greenman felt that the best chance to save the Astoria would be to get her into the shallow waters near Guadalcanal. He requested that his cruiser be taken under tow. Accordingly, the Hopkins backed her stern up to the cruiser’s rear so that a tow line could be passed between the ships. It took two attempts, but the Astoria was soon under tow. The Hopkins eventually was able to make three knots.

The destroyer Wilson arrived on the scene at about 9 am. Positioning herself off the Astoria’s starboard bow, she soon began to pump water into the fires. The stream continued for almost an hour. Around 10 am both the Wilson and Hopkins were called away. Captain Greenman was soon advised that the destroyer Buchanan would arrive to continue the firefighting effort. The transport Alchiba was also dispatched to take up the tow line.

Although some progress had been made on the flames above deck, the fires below were increasing in intensity. A large fire was burning out of control in the wardroom area. Several small explosions below decks occurred, followed by a much larger one at 11 am. The larger explosion appeared to have originated below and just behind turret two. The Astoria’s list to port began to increase, first to 10 degrees and then to 15 degrees. The holes, which had been just above the waterline, were now taking in water. A failed attempt to plug them was made with mattresses and pillows.
Lieutenant Commander Topper was standing on the forecastle when he felt the rumble of another internal explosion. Looking over the port side he noticed yellow bubbles coming to the surface near turret two. He immediately ordered all personnel to leave the area and then rushed to report this information to the captain.

The Buchanan, now on station off the starboard bow of the cruiser, prepared to continue the firefighting effort. Captain Greenman made his way forward for a firsthand review of the efforts. The cruiser’s list was now increasing rapidly. The senior officers gathered to discuss the situation. Topper, Executive Officer Shoup, and Engineering Officer Hayes all felt that it was time to abandon ship once again. Captain Greenman readily agreed. Preparations were made for the Buchanan to move to the starboard quarter to take off personnel. All hands were ordered to make their way toward the stern of the ship.

Before Captain Greenman and his officers could make their way to the fantail, the Astoria’s list had reached 30 degrees. It became apparent that the cruiser was not going to stay afloat much longer. At noon Captain Greenman gave the order to abandon ship. Men began to jump into the water as the Buchanan stood about 300 yards distant. As Greenman and Shoup departed the ship for the last time, the list had increased to 45 degrees. The Astoria turned over to her port beam and began to sink stern first. Her bow rose slightly above the water, and she disappeared at 12:15.

 Suggested Reading: 

Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal By James D. Hornsfischer 

South Pacific Destroyer: The Battle for the Solomons from Savo Island to Vella Gulf By Russell Crenshaw Jr.  

Lost at Guadalcanal: The Final Battles of the Astoria and Chicago as Described by Survivors and in Official Reports By John J. Domagalski