World War One: Americans came to fight

With the 100th year anniversary of the Great War’s end, and of the carnage that it caused, fast approaching, I thought to reflect upon the contribution that some Americans gave who answered the call for freedom. My gratitude can never truly be enough for the sacrifices they made, which allows me to do the things I do today, the same as for those in the Second World War, but in my simple way of keeping their memory alive, I hope to show the honor and esteem they deserve.

The Campaigns the AEF engaged in.

Cambrai 20 November – 4 December 1917
Somme Defensive 21 March – 6 Apri1 1918
Lys 9 – 27 April 1918
Aisne 27 May – 5 June 1918
Montdidier-Noyon 9 – 13 June 1918
Champagne-Marne 15 – 18 July 1918
Aisne-Marne 18 July – 6 August 1918
Somme Offensive 8 August – 11 November 1918
Oise-Aisne 18 August – 11 November 1918
Ypres-Lys 19 August – 11 November 1918
St. Mihiel 12 – 16 September 1918
Meuse-Argonne 26 September – 11 November 1918
Vittorio Veneto 24 October – 4 November 1918

Cambrai, 20 November – 4 December 1917. The year that America entered the war was marked by near disaster for the Allies on all the European fronts. A French offensive in April, with which the British cooperated, was a failure, and was followed by widespread mutinies in the French armies. The British maintained strong pressure on their front throughout the year; but British attacks on the Messines Ridge (7 June), at Ypres (31 July), and at Cambrai (20 November) failed in their main objective-the capture of German submarine bases-and took a severe toll of British fighting strength. Three American engineer regiments-the 11th, 12th, and 14th-were engaged in construction activity behind the British lines at Cambrai in November, when they were unexpectedly called upon to go into the front lines during an emergency. They thus became the first A.E.F. units to meet the enemy.

Somme Defensive, 21 March – 6 April 1918. The German high command decided to attack on the British-held Somme front in the direction of Amiens. A breakthrough at this point would separate the French from the British, push the latter into a pocket in Flanders, and open the way to the Channel ports.

 The offensive began on 21 March 1918 with three German armies (about 62 divisions in all) in the assault. British defense lines were pierced in rapid succession. By 26 March Amiens was seriously threatened, and on the following day a gap was created between the French and British armies. But the Germans lacked reserves to exploit their initial phenomenal successes, and the Allies moved in enough reserves to bring the offensive to a halt by 6 April. The Germans had advanced up to 40 miles, had captured 1,500 square miles of ground and 70,000 prisoners, and had inflicted some 200,000 casualties. They had failed, however, to achieve any or their strategic objectives; destruction of the British, disruption of Allied lateral communicational and capture of Amiens.

On 25 March 1918, at the height at the German drive, Pershing placed the four American divisions at that time ready for combat at the disposal of the French. But only a few American units were engaged. They included the 6th, 12th, and 14th Engineers and the 17th, 22d, and 148th Aero Squadrons, a total of about 2200 men.

Lys, 9 – 27 April 1918. Ludendorff still hoped to destroy the hard-hit British Army before it had a chance to recover from the effects of the Somme drive. This was the purpose of a new German attack launched on 9 April 1918 on a narrow front along the Lys River in Flanders. The Germans committed 46 divisions to the assault, and, using Hutier attacks once again, quickly scored a breakthrough. The British situation was desperate for some days. Haig issued his famous “backs to the wall” order and appealed to Foch for reinforcements. But the Allied Supreme Commander, convinced that the British could hold their line, refused to commit reserves he was building up in anticipation of the day when the Allies would again be able to seize the initiative. Foch’s judgment proved to be correct, and Ludendorff called off the offensive on 29 April.

Since 21 March the Germans had suffered some 350,000 casualties without having attained any vital objectives; in the same period British casualties numbered about 305,000. About 500 Americans participated in the campaign, including troops of the 16th Engineers, 28th Aero Squadron, and 1st Gas Regiment.

Aisne 27 May – 5 June 1918. The next major German attack fell on 27 May on the thinly held but formidable terrain along the Aisne River known as the Chemin des Dames. The original objective of this new offensive was to draw southward the Allied reserves accumulated back of the British sector, in preparation for a final German attempt to destroy the British Army in Flanders. The French and British defenders were taken completely by surprise, and their positions were overrun rapidly on a forty-mile front. German progress on the first day was so rapid (advances up to 13 miles were made at some points) that Ludendorff altered his plans and decided to make the diversionary attack a main effort. Most of the Aisne bridges were captured intact. The thrust toward Rheims failed but Soissons was taken, and by 31 May the Germans had reached the outskirts of Chateau-Thierry on the Marne, less than 40 miles from Paris.

In the next few days the Germans sought to exploit and expand the deep and exposed salient which they had established. But by 4 June they had been stopped everywhere. Some 27,500 American troops took part in the check of the German advance. The 3d Division foiled enemy attempts in the period 1-4 June to secure a firm bridgehead across the Marne at Chateau-Thierry. West of the town the 2d Division, which included a Marine brigade, defended the road to Paris, and on 6 June successfully counterattacked in Belleau Wood.

Montdidier-Noyon, 9 – 13 June 1918. Ludendorff followed up his stalled Aisne offensive with a small-scale drive in the Montdidier-Noyon sector on 9 June 1918. Twenty-one German division attacked the French on a twenty-three mile front extending from Montdidier to the Oise River. The French anticipated the assault and contained it after a nine-mile penetration by the Germans, counterattacking strongly. The fighting was over by 12 June, and the enemy had little to show for the heavy losses incurred. No large American units were in the immediate vicinity of this action, although the 1st Division at Cantigny was subjected to artillery fire and diversionary raids.

Champagne-Marne, 15 – 18 July 1918. In the four great offensives from 21 March to 13 June 1918 the Germans gained considerable ground, but failed to achieve a decisive advantage at any point on the front. Furthermore, success was bought at a price in manpower and material which they could ill afford. Their more than 600,000 casualties were irreplaceable, whereas the Allied loss of some 800,000 men was soon more than compensated for by new American units arriving at the front in ever-mounting numbers. By July 1918 Allied troops outnumbered German on the Western Front. Other factors also contributed to the decline of German morale, notably the pinch of the blockade and the effectiveness of the Allied propaganda, which was distributed widely by air at the front and in German cities behind the lines. But Ludendorff refused to consider peace negotiations, and planned two more offensives for July which he hoped would bring victory. The first of the new drives was designed to capture Rheims, to make more secure the supply of the Merge salient, and to draw in Allied reserves. The second and larger offensive, destined never to be launched, would strike once again at the British in Flanders.

When the two-pronged German assault on either side of Rheims began on 15 July the Allies were prepared for it. Plans for the attack had leaked out of Berlin, and Allied airplanes had detected the unusual activity behind the enemy front. Foch had time to draw up reserves, and Petain, the French commander, skillfully deployed his troops in defense-in-depth tactics. Consequently the German drive east of Rheims fell far short of its objective. The attack west of the city succeeded in pushing across the Marne near Chateau-Thierry, but was checked there by French and American units. Among the A.E.F. units involved in this action were the 3d, 26th, 28th, and 42d Divisions, the 369th Infantry, and supporting elements (in all about 85,000 Americans). It was here that the 38th Infantry of the 3d Division gained its motto, “Rock of the Marne.”

By 17 July the Champagne-Marne offensive had petered out and the initiative passed to the Allies. The German people had built up great hopes for the success of this Friedensturm (peace offensive); its failure was a tremendous psychological blow to the whole nation.

Aisne-Marne, 18 July – 6 August 1918. Several days before the Germans launched their abortive Champagne-Marne drive, the French high command had made plans for a general converging offensive against the Marne salient. Petain issued orders on 12 July for the attack to begin on the 18th, with five French armies-the Tenth, Sixth, Ninth, Fifth, and Fourth, placed around the salient from left to right-taking part. Spearheading the attack were the five divisions of the French XX Corps (Tenth Army), including the American 1st and 2d Divisions. Early on 18 July the two American divisions and a French Moroccan division, jumping off behind a heavy barrage, launched the main blow at the northwest base of the salient near Soissons. Enemy frontline troops, taken by surprise, initially gave ground, although resistance stiffened after an Allied penetration of some three miles. Before the 1st and 2d Divisions were relieved (on 19 and 22 July respectively) they had advanced 6 to 7 miles, made Soissons untenable for the enemy, and captured 6,500 prisoners at a cost of over 10,000 American casualties.

Meanwhile the other French armies in the offensive also made important gains, and the German commander ordered a general retreat from the Marne salient. The French Sixth Army, on the right of the Tenth, advanced steadily from the southwest, reaching the Vesle River on 3 August. By 28 Judy this army included the American 3d, 4th, 28th, and 42d Divisions. The 4th and 42d Divisions were under control of the I Corps, the first American corps headquarters to participate in combat. On 4 August the American III Corps headquarters entered combat, taking control of the 28th and 32d Divisions (the latter had relieved the 3d Division in the line on 29 July). By 5 August the entire Sixth Army front was held by the two American corps. East of the Sixth Army the French Ninth and Fifth Armies also advanced into the salient. The Germans retired across the Aisne and Vesle Rivers, resolutely defending each strong point as they went.

By 6 August the Aisne-Marne Offensive was over. The threat to Paris was ended by wiping out the Marne salient. The initiative now had definitely passed to the Allies, ending any possibility that Ludendorff could carry out his planned offensive in Flanders. Moreover, the success of the offensive revealed the advantages of Allied unity of command and the fighting qualities of American units. The eight A.E.F. divisions (1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, 26th, 28th, 32d, 42d) in the action had spearheaded much of the advance, demonstrating offensive capabilities that helped to inspire new confidence in the war-weary Allied armies. About 270,000 Americans took part in the battle.

On 24 July, while the Aisne-Marne drive was under way, Foch had outlined his plans for the remainder of 1918 at the only conference of Allied commanders that he called during the war. He proposed that the immediate objective of the Allied offensive should be the reduction of the three main German salients (Marne, Amiens, St. Mihiel), with the goal of improving lateral communications behind the front in preparation for a general offensive in the fall. Reduction of the St. Mihiel salient was assigned to Pershing at his own request.

The excellent showing made by American troops in the Aisne-Marne Offensive gave Pershing an opportunity to press again for the formation of an independent American army. Preliminary steps in the organization of the American First Army had been taken in early July 1918. On the 4th Lt. Col. Hugh A. Drum was selected as chief of staff and directed to begin establishment of army headquarters. After conferences on 10 and 21 July, Foch agreed on the 22d to the formal organization of the First Army, and to the formation of two American sectors-a temporary combat sector in the Chateau-Thierry region, where the already active I and III Corps could comprise the nucleus of the First Army, and a quiet sector farther east, extending from Nomeny (east of the Moselle) to a point north of St. Mihiel-which would become the actual theater of operations for the American Army as soon as circumstances permitted concentration of A.E.F. divisions there. Orders issued on 24 July announced formal organization of the First Army, effective on 10 August; designated Pershing as its commander; and located its headquarters at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, west of Chateau-Thierry.

Stabilization of the Vesle River front in early August led Pershing to alter his plane for forming the First Army. Instead of organizing it in the Chateau-Thierry region and then moving it eastward for the St. Mihiel Offensive, he secured Foch’s consent on 9 August to a build-up of First Army units in the vicinity of the St. Mihiel salient. Tentative plans for reduction of the salient called for the concentration of three American corps (about 14 American and 3 French divisions) on a front extending from Port-sur-Seille westward around the bulge to Watronville. Three American divisions would remain on the Vesle front.

Meanwhile Allied forces, including American units operating in other sectors of the Western Front, were making significant gains in the preliminary phases of the great final offensives. For the sake of clarity, the role of American units in the Somme Offensive (8 August11 November), Oise-Aisne (18 August-11 November), and Ypres-Lys (19 August-11 November) Campaigns will be described briefly, before considering in more detail the activities of the main body of A.E.F. troops in the St. Mihiel (12-16 September) and Meuse-Argonne (26 September-11 November) Campaigns.

Somme Offensive, 8 August – 11 November 1918. On 8 August the British began limited operations with the objective of flattening the Amiens salient. This attack marked the beginning of the great Somme Offensive, which continued until hostilities ceased on 11 November. The British Fourth Army, including the American 33d and 80th Divisions, struck the northwestern edge of the salient in coordination with a thrust by the French First Army from the southwest. No artillery barrage preceded the attack to forewarn the enemy. Some 600 tanks spearheaded the British assault, which jumped off during the thick fog. The completely surprised Germans quickly gave up 16,000 prisoners as their positions were overrun. Ludendorff himself characterized 8 August as the “Black Day of the German Army.” The Germans were forced to fal1 back to the old 1915 line, where they reorganized strong defenses-in-depth. Haig then shifted his attack farther north to the vicinity of Arras on 21 August, forcing the Germans to withdraw toward the Hindenburg Line. By the end of the month they had evacuated the whole of the Amiens salient.

The drive to breach the main Hindenburg Line began at the end of September. The American II Corps (27th and 30th Divisions), forming part of the British Fourth Army, attacked the German defenses along the line of the Cambrai-St. Quentin Canal, capturing heavily fortified Bony and Bellicourt on the 29th. By 5 October the offensive had broken through the Hindenburg Line, and the Allied forces advanced through open country to the Oise-Somme Canal (19 October). During this phase of the operations the 27th and 30th Divisions alternated in the line. When the American II Corps was relieved on 21 October, it had served 26 days in the line and suffered 11,500 casualties.

The British advance in the Somme region continued until the Armistice, constituting the northern arm of Foch’s great pincers movement on the Germans’ vital lateral rail communications system. The key junction at Aulnoye, southwest of Maubeuge, was reached on 5 November. A total of about 54,000 Americans participated in the Somme Campaign.

Oise-Aisne, 18 August – 11 November 1918. In mid-August the French started a series of drives on their front, which extended about 90 miles from Reims westward through Soissons to Ribecourt on the Oise River. These operations continued into late September, when they merged into Foch’s great final offensive of October-November. Five French armies (from right to left the Fifth, Sixth, Tenth, Third, and First) advanced abreast, in coordination with the British on the Somme to the north and the Americans to the east.

The American 32d Division was a part of the French Tenth Army, which spearheaded the penetration of the enemy’s main line on 22 August. The 32d was instrumental in the capture of Juvigny on 30 August, which secured tactically important high ground for the Allies. The German front was so badly breached that the enemy was compelled to abandon the Vesle River line. On 9 September the 32d Division was ordered east to join the American First Army.

The American III Corps (28th and 77th Divisions) was a part of the French Sixth Army east of Soissons, which held in late August the western part of the Vesle River sector extending from Braine to Courlandon. As the Germans retired from the Vesle northward to the Aisne valley in early September, the III Corps took part in the aggressive pursuit operations. Its two divisions carried out successful local attacks, but failed to break into the German line before they were relieved to join the American First Army-the 28th on 7-8 September and the 77th on 14-16 September.

No American divisions participated in the subsequent Oise-Aisne operations, which by 11 November had carried the French armies to the Belgian border. A total of about 85,000 Americans took part in the Oise-Aisne Campaign.

Ypres-Lys 19 August – 11 November 1918. That part of the Western Front extending from the English Channel south through Ypres, and thence across the Lye River to the vicinity of Arras, was manned by an army group under King Albert of Belgium composed of Belgian, British, and French armies. In late August and early September the British Second and Fifth Armies, assisted by the American II Corps (27th and 30th Divisions), wiped out the Lys salient. When the Germans began retiring in the sector south of the Lys in October to shorten their lines, King Albert’s army group attacked along its entire front. By 20 October Ostend and Bruges had been captured and the Allied left was at the Dutch frontier. In mid-October Pershing dispatched two American divisions-the 37th and 91st-to the French Army of Belgium, at Foch’s request, to give impetus to the drive to cross the Scheldt (Escaut) southwest of Ghent. A general attack began in this area on 31 October and continued intermittently until hostilities ended on 11 November. The 37th Division forced a crossing of the river southeast of Heurne on 2 November and another farther north at the site of the destroyed Hermelgem-Syngem bridge on 10 November. Casualties of the two divisions in these operations totaled about 2,600. From 19 August to 11 November about 108,000 Americans participated in the Ypres-Lys Campaign.

St. Mihiel, 12 – 16 September 1918. By September 1918, with both the Marne and the Amiens salients eliminated, there remained but one major threat to lateral rail communications behind the Allied lines-the old St. Mihiel salient near the Paris-Nancy line. Active preparations for its reduction began with the transfer of Headquarters First Army, effective 13 August, from La Ferté-sous-Jouarre in the Marne region to Neufchateau on the Meuse, immediately south of St. Mihiel. On 28 August the first echelon of headquarters moved closer to the front at Ligny-en-Barrois.

American unite from Flanders to Switzerland were shifted into the area near the salient. The fourteen American and four French divisions assigned to the First Army for the operation contained ample infantry and machinegun units for the attack. But because of the earlier priority given to shipment of infantry (at the insistence of the British and French) the First Army was short of artillery, tank, air and other support units essential to a well-balanced field army. The French made up this deficiency by loaning Pershing over half the artillery and nearly half the airplanes and tanks needed for the St. Mihiel operation.

Shortly before the offensive was to begin, Foch threatened once again to disrupt Pershing’s long-held desire to carry out a major operation with an independent American force. On 30 August the Allied Commander in Chief proposed to exploit the recently gained successes on the Aisne-Marne and Amiens fronts by reducing the size of the St. Mihiel attack and dividing the American forces into three groups-one for the salient offensive and two for fronts to the east and west of the Argonne Forest. Pershing, however, remained adamant in his insistence that the First Army should not now be broken up, no matter where it might be sent into action. Fina1ly a compromise was reached. The St. Mihiel attack was subordinated to the much larger offensive to be launched on the Meuse-Argonne front in late September, but the First Army remained intact. Pershing agreed to limit his operations by employing only the minimum force needed to reduce the salient in three or four days. Simultaneously he was to prepare his troops for a major role in the Meuse-Argonne drive.

The St. Mihiel offensive began on 12 September with a threefold assault on the salient. The main attack was made against the south face by two American corps. On the right was the I Corps (from right to left the 82d, 90th, 5th, and 2d Divisions in line with the 78th in reserve) covering a front from Pont-à-Mousson on the Moselle westward to Limey; on the left, the IV Corps (from right to left the 89th, 42d, and 1st Divisions in line with the 3d in reserve) extending along a front from Limey westward to Marvoisin. A secondary thrust was carried out against the west face along the heights of the Meuse, from Mouilly north to Haudimont, by the V Corps (from right to left the 26th Division, the French 15th Colonial Division, and the 8th Brigade, 4th Division in line with the rest of the 4th in reserve). A holding attack against the apex, to keep the enemy in the salient, was made by the French II Colonial Corps (from right to left the French 39th Colonial Division, the French 26th Division, and the French 2d Cavalry Division in line). In First Army reserve were the American 35th, 80th, and 91st Divisions.

Tota1 Allied forces involved in the offensive numbered more than 650,000-some 550,000 American and 100,000 Allied (mostly French) troops. In support of the attack the First Army had over 3,000 guns, 400 French tanks, and 1,500 airplanes. Col. William Mitchell directed the heterogeneous air force, composed of British, French, Italian, Portuguese, and American units, in what proved to be the largest single air operation of the war. American squadrons flew 609 of the airplanes, which were mostly of French or British manufacture.

Defending the salient was German “Army Detachment C,” consisting of eight divisions and a brigade in the line and about two divisions in reserve. The Germans, now desperately short of manpower, had begun a step-by-step withdrawal from the salient only the day before the offensive began. The attack went so well on 12 September that Pershing ordered a speedup in the offensive. By the morning of 13 September the 1st Division, advancing from the east, joined hands with the 26th Division, moving in from the west, and before evening all objectives in the salient had been captured. At this point Pershing halted further advances so that American units could be withdrawn for the coming offensive in the Meuse-Argonne sector.

This first major operation by an American Army under its own command took 16,000 prisoners at a cost of 7,000 casualties, eliminated the threat of an attack on the rear of Allied fortifications at Nancy and Verdun, greatly improved Allied lateral rail communications, and opened the way for a possible future offensive to seize Metz and the Briey iron fields.

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®

SOURCE: United States Army Center of Military History

CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan

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