A photographic image captured by Sgt. Owen G. Williams of the 3rd Photo Section, American Expeditionary Force (AEF) of a lone American grave north of Flirey, France, sparked the interest of the authors, both avid WWI researchers. Who was the soldier marked by the rudimentary cross? Despite excellent details the photo was able to reveal, the sparse caption on back (Flirey), and a diary entry left by Williams, the identity of the soldier has remained unknown for over a century.
The question was, could the doughboy in the poorly marked grave finally be identified? We thought we could.
TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT THIS PHOTO
As seen above, the grave is surrounded by cheval de frise barricades and the wreckage of war. The barricades would have been used to block the nearby road (seen in the background).
Note the fired artillery shells, numerous Hotchkiss machine gun ammunition clips, and even US and German bayonets stuck into the ground marking the edge of the grave. A US Enfield rifle (with bolt removed) rests on top while a holed overseas cap is seen near the head of the grave.
What catches most eyes is the interesting name plate and identification disc (“dog tag”) nailed to the cross. A high-resolution scan revealed that there is a name scratched on to the plate: “Eugene something.” The Model 1917 dog tag, however, was unreadable.
BEGINNING TO PIECE THE PUZZLE TOGETHER
From here, we were able to piece together some clues:
*The location written on the reverse is Flirey. This lies between St. Mihiel and Point Au-Mousson.
*From that, we could surmise the subject was most likely killed during the St Mihiel Offensive, when the US presence there was greatest.
*Per the the AEF’s order of battle, Flirey was in the IV Corp’s zone for the offensive. IV Corp consisted of the 1st, 2nd, 42nd, and 89th Divisions. Of those Divisions, the 1st, 2nd, and 42nd were all equipped with M1903 Springfield rifles. Remember, there was an Enfield rifle shown with the grave.
*The 89th Division, however, were equipped with M1917 Enfield rifles. In checking the Corps combat map for the battle, we see that the 89th (carrying Enfield’s) started out of Flirey.
*The next step was to review a copy of History of the 89th Division, U.S.A (published in 1920). In the back of the book, there is a list of men killed in action. According to that list, there were three 89th Division men named “Eugene” who were killed during the war: Eugene Binger, Eugene Reis, and Eugene Timlin.
*The last name on the plate on the grave is certainly longer than four letters, so we were able to exclude Reis right away.
*We then reference the two remaining names against the National Archives recently digitized “Card Register of Burials of Deceased American Soldiers.” These revealed that Timlin was killed in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in October. He wouldn’t be buried near Flirey.
*Binger’s burial card shows he was initially buried in an isolated grave near Flirey, after being killed in action on September 12, 1918 — the first day of the battle.
We had our match!
SOLDIER'S IDENTITY RESTORED
Eugene Binger was born in St Paul, Minnesota, but was living in Spink, South Dakota, with a wife and child when he was drafted into the Army in late 1917. He had listed his occupation as a musician on his draft card.
Once drafted, he trained at Camp Funston, Kansas, most likely assigned to Company K, 355th Infantry of the newly formed 89th Division. The 355th went overseas in June 1918, and Binger was right with them in Company K.
After a long period of training with the French, the 355th deployed to the front-line trenches in early August near Beaumont. As a welcoming present, the Germans subjected much of the Regiment to heavy artillery and gas on their first evening in the line. The 1st Battalion lost 57 men killed along with another 273 wounded. They were truly tried by fire, and after that were well prepared for the Germans.
The 89th Division spent the following month holding the line at Beaumont before moving into the line near Flirey. Opposing them were hardened German soldiers in prepared defenses with terrain advantage.
The St Mihiel Offensive began with heavy artillery preparation along the entire German front in this area at 1AM on September 12, 1918. At 5AM, the whistles blew, and US soldiers along the front climbed out of their trenches and pushed forward across no-man’s land. The ground was wet, as a cold drizzle has been falling all morning.
Commanding Company K of the 355th Infantry, Lt Clifford W Hubbard later wrote of the initial attack: “September 12, we filed into some trenches and got orders to prepare for action, which we did tout de suite, as the French say. This was the first big barrage we had ever heard. As far as you could see to the right and left the sky was lit up and you could scarcely hear your own voice. Then word came that zero hour was five AM. At last the time came and we started and did not stop for three days. We certainly had the Dutchmen on the run…The Germans seemed to have but one idea or perhaps two; to run, and, if they could not run fast enough, to surrender.”
It was here where Binger was killed, perhaps within the first hour of the attack. The 355th was holding the left flank of the sector and managed to push the Germans almost 20 km in that first day’s fighting.
After the big push at St Mihiel, there was a period of rest and reorganization for the Regiment. This lasted until October, when they were again put to the test and fought their way through the Meuse-Argonne offensive — fighting right up until the Armistice on November 11, 1918. After the Armistice, the Regiment performed occupation duty in Germany.
The 355th Infantry saw a good bit of fighting in their few months of combat, and Eugene Binger would have been there for their first major battle. He gave up his life for the freedom of a foreign country, as a drafted man, knowing nothing of soldiering having spent only about a year in the Army. His sacrifice will not be forgotten here, thanks to the fantastic photography skills of Sgt Owen G. Williams, 3rd Photo Section, Air Service.
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