Holthaus, Soldier of the Argonne
It was 6:05 when the 12-6-344 train pulled out of the Cottonwood station headed for Grangeville. The band was playing, the Lieutenant Governor had finished his speech, laced with patriotic slogans, and nearly 1,000 local citizens waved flags and shouted farewells. Ninety-eight young men from the Cottonwood area were leaving for Camp Lewis, Washington and eventually to the Great War. As the train pulled away from the platform, it gave one more shrill whistle. Little did Julius know that this would be his “swan song” as he left his beloved family for the last time. The Great War in Europe was waiting to swallow up one more victim!!
The Holthaus Family (Theodore and Elizabetha) had immigrated to America in 1848. They came from Westphalia State in Northern Germany to Twin Springs (now Festina), Iowa. Julius was born on May 12, 1895; his parents being Alloys and Josephine (Funke) Holthaus. Josephine was a sister to John Funke, Who was a pillar of the Cottonwood Community. They had ten children, the last to be born was Richard born in Cottonwood in 1914 (died April 21,2003). The family moved to Cottonwood in January 1914 and had a farm just outside of town.
With the Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, in Serbia in 1914, most of the “civilized “ world was on an inexorable course war; the worst war that mankind had ever perpetrated. For instance, during the extended siege of Verdun, their were 1,000,000 French and German causalities. The British lost some 30,000 killed and had some 60,000 causalities during the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916.
This was the result of the 19th century tactics against 20th century weapons.
When the Untied States declared was on Germany (April 6, 1917) the country, and the military, was woefully unprepared. Our most recent military foray had been chasing Poncho Villa around Northern Mexico…without any substantial results.
A draft was instituted, after many debates, in May of 1917. Of the 24,234,021 men that registered, 2,810,296 men were inducted. Idaho sent 19,016 men off to war. In the end, some 4,800,000 served in the Armed Forces of the United States. By the end of hostilities, we had 42 Army Divisions in France. Although a Division consisted of 28,000 men, most of them were usually understrength.
Julius left Cottonwood on July 27, 1918 after being drafted in April of that year. A few days before he left, his family hosted a party for him. The Saturday prior to his departure a party for the 98 men leaving for Camp Lewis, Washington was held at the home of August Schroeder. Five hundred people were in attendance.
Julius arrived at Camp Lewis on June 29th and left for Camp Kearney, California on July 16th. On July 30th, he left Camp Kearney with Co. G. 154th Infantry regiment, 40th Division. In official government publication written after the war, it states:
“The average American soldier who fought in France had six months of training here, two months overseas before entering the line, and one month in a quiet sector before going into battle.”
If you “do the math”, you can see that Julius had virtually no training. In all fairness, there was a reason for this lack of training. In the spring of 1918, the German Army made a last desperate lunge all across the front for a decisive victory before the Americans got to Europe in large numbers. This spring offensive is referred to as the Second Battle of the Marine. With French and British units caving in all over the front, an appeal went out to Americans to send over men; with or without training and weapons. Thus in the spring of 1918, a swell of raw recruits were shipped to the ports of France and England. Julius traveled across the United States by railroad. Sometimes they were fed on the train and at other times they were served meals by the local Red Cross. As they passed through a town, people would come out to cheer them with a patriotic frenzy. In some cases, the local bars would give them free liquor, which would result in some tense moments as the trains rolled on toward the port of embarkation. The trains traveled between 20-30 miles-per-hour: it cost about 13 –cents per mile per man.
On August 8th some 6,000 men of the 40th Division boarded the SS Olympic, which was owned by the British White Star Line. It was a sister ship of the Titanic and Britannia and was a luxury liner before the war. The ship could reach a maximum speed of 22 knots; its’ precord for transporting troops was 6,148 men per trip.
During the trip overseas, Julius mentioned being on guard duty. This refers to being on the lookout for German submarines. Although the sinking of troop ships was virtually non-existent, the April 4, 1919 edition of the Cottonwood Chronicle reported that Sgt. Delmer Hockersmith of Cottonwood was on the Tuscania when it was torpedoed by an enemy submarine. Delmer was picked up by an escourt ship and subsequently served with the 158th Aero Squadron during the war.
The Olympic docked at South Hampton, England on August 17th and then they waited for another ship to take them to Cherbourg, France. On September 21st they boarded rail cars to head to the front. These French box cars were referred to as 40 and 8’s; on the side of the car it started, “hommes (men) 40, Chevaux (horses) 8.” On the 25th he arrived in the Argonne region and was assigned, with 75 other replacements, to the 77th Division. His last entry in the diary was; “rain and not much to do.” This would quickly change as Co. A, 308th Inf. Rgt. Would move up to the front line and become part of the 1,200,000 men who would participate in the last big Allied offensive in WWI.
A few days before the battle, the 77th received their new 1917 Enfield rifles manufactured by Winchester. The replacements would not be familiar with this rifle and some did not know how to load it, much less fire it.
In the early morning hours of September 27, U.S. Army artillery began a three-hour barrage on the German positions with French 75mm and 155mm howitzers. Nearly 3,000 howitzers fired more shells in three hours than the Union Army fired during the U.S Civil War!! Captain Harry Truman commanded an artillery battery during the Argonne offensive and lent supporting fire. The men of the 308th Rgt. Moved out of their rock shelters near the town of LaHarazee and “went over the top”. They were told to leave their overcoats and rain gear behind…. Even though it had been raining for several days. As the supply trains never reached the front, prior to H-hour, the men were short of ammo, grenades, and rations.
The 308th Regiment was fighting against the 76th Reserve Division from the German State of Hesse. This is the state which neighbors Westphallia State that the Holthaus family came from in 1848!! During the Revolutionary War, George Washington fought Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. Another historical point is that the Intelligence Officer of the 76th Reserve Division was a man by the name of Fritz Prinz. He worked in Spokane, WA. Before the war. In the fall of 1914, he went back to Germany to fight for the Fatherland.
There is a saying in the military, “a military plan is only valid until you come in contact with the enemy.” This was definitely the case in the battle of the Argonne. Communications were lacking to non-existent, men and units became lost and separated and chaos was the order of the day. The forest, with its tangle of underbrush, barbed wire, and shattered trees became a tactical nightmare. The Germans had three years to build trenches, bunkers barbed wire enganglements, and machine gun nests throughout the forest. The American doughboys would walk right up to a German reboubt before they were cut down with rifle and machinegun fire. The Forest canopy was dripping with rain and the ground was obscured by fog, which helped hide the enemy. Even today, the casual visitor to the Argonne is amazed by how men could fight through this tangle of forest and hillocks.
It was 9 PM on the 28th of September when Co. A, C,F,H and I were surrounded on a hill with the ominous name of Le Homme Mort (The Dead Man). They fought off repeated attacks with meager supplies of ammo and rations. On the morning of September 30th, Julius and his shot-up comrades were relieved. This would go down in history as the “First Encirclement.” On the morning of October 1st, they moved back far enough to get resupplied with ammunition, grenades and what little food that they could find. They then headed up the ravine that ran North from Le Homme Mort.
They moved up the ravine and Co. A took the West Side of the of the 308th Rgt. They fought through brush as they moved up the slope but after several hours they came out into an open orchard, As they moved through the open area they came under German rifle and machinegun fire. Julius fell mortally wounded by one well-placed rifle bullet.
The bullet that struck Julius went through his diary, which is in his family’s possession today. Of the eight killed that day, nine of them were privates from the West and Midwest and thus they were “green” replacements. Enoch Christiansom of Co. A received a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on that day. He deliberately drew enemy sniper fire so that his comrades could locate the gun position and take it out. Several causalities were caused by this sniper and Julius may have been one of them. His wound is not one usually made by a rapid firing machinegun or a random lucky shot. Julius had fought his final battle. Unknown to his family working on the farm, outside of Cottonwood, their son would not be coming home. The music and patriotic speeches given on the depot platform on June 26th had all fallen silence and have been forgotten by time. It was now time for this fallen soldier to die alone in a muddy field on the edge of Binarville, France. Another broken body chalked up to the politically bankrupt European monarchy’s and the failed foreign policy of the Wilson administration. The fallen men of October 1st were taken to the town of Vienne le Chateau for temporary burial.
In 1921 his body was disinterred and taken to the new American Cemetery at Romagne-Gesnes, France where 14,246 War Dead are interred. When he was disinterred, his body was found under the marker; Pat Sullivan, Co. C, 308th Inf. Rgt!!
To the northeast of where Julius was killed, Sgt. York would fight a few days later and receive the Medal of Honor. Julius’ cousin, Hugo Funke (Cottonwood, ID.) Would be killed on the night of Nov. 10th trying to put a bridge across the Meuse River on the eastern edge of the Argonne. Another cousin from South Dakota, Hugo Unteriner, would fight in the lost Battalion with the 308th Inf. And survive to return home. The mothers of Julius Holthaus and Hugo Funke would go on the Gold Star Tour in 1933 to visit the graves of their sons.
Was World War I worth the sacrifice; was it the war that would end all wars? Twenty-six years later in the fall of 1944, the 513th Parachute Inf. Rgt. of the 17th Airborne Division pushed the German defenders from the American Cemetery and the surrounding terrain. In fact, the American G.I’s dug their “fox holes” among the graves of the WWI dead!!
The final toll: World War I…7,485,600
(Killed in action) Russia…1,700,000
77th Inf. Division…1,992
77th Div. Argonne…1,017
308th Inf. Rgt…409
Rest in peace soldiers of the Great War, Soldiers of the AEF.
The author, Clyde Cremer, is an amateur historian who is President and owner of American Log Homes, Inc. Pueblo West, CO. He is also a graduate forester. Julius Holthaus and Hugo Funke are relatives of the sriter…several times removed. He has visited Northern France and the Argonne and has walked the final paths of both Julius and Hugo.